Sci-fi series ‘The Peripheral’ is stunning, but lacks substance

As popular and prevalent as they may be, well-done sci-fis are a tough nut to crack. Often featured by imaginative plots, they explore idealistic futures cloaked as alternate realities, the extraterrestrial and inconceivable technological innovations. Recent hits like “Black Mirror” and “Westworld” struck gold by not only reshaping the bounds of an audience’s perception of the abnormal and otherworldly, but by making sharp, insightful commentary on the social-political state of the real world. Yet despite being so adept for screen adaptations, sci-fis tend to get so caught up in their own visionary genius that they neglect to provide the basics of the well-written plot and fleshed-out characters necessary to ground such high-scale aesthetics.

Such is, quite unfortunately, the case with Prime Video’s recent adaptation of William Gibson’s 2014 cyberpunk sci-fi novel of the same name, “The Peripheral.” Set in a desolate rural small town in the near future, the story centers around clever, ever-resourceful Flynne Fisher (Chloë Grace Moretz, “Carrie”) and her brother Burton (Jack Reynor, “Midsommar”), who care for their sick mother Ella (Melinda Page Hamilton, “Sleeping Dogs Lie”) and make ends meet by beta-testing “sims,” an advanced version of modern-day virtual reality video games. The pilot kicks off with the siblings receiving mysterious new technology from a cryptic Colombian company and discovering a sim of an eerily futuristic London that isn’t as fake as they presume it to be. Though it’s a visually stunning feat of television, “The Peripheral” sorely lacks the narrative substance or compelling cast of characters required to hook its audience beyond the mirage of grand sights and sounds that comprise its high-budget special effects.

In all fairness, the show’s confidence in its technical and visual techniques is well-founded. This premiere episode alone delivers an exemplary sequence of Flynne’s first entry into the sim, with a dazzling, glamorous visage, which works to hide the foreboding undertones of an ominous AI voice instructing her every move and the semi-sentient mannequin-esque androids at every turn. Clear care was taken to emphasize the contrast between the two realities that arise as the narrative jumps in and out of the sim; scenic shifts from the bleak, barren landscape of Flynne’s present-day life to the sleek, shiny future London are about as jarring as entering an Apple Store from the back-door of a deserted 7-11. The shimmering glow and sonic speed-rush of being thrown head-first into these scenes place the viewer in Flynne’s shoes, overwhelmed by the decadence of this reality in comparison to her own. Even the first ordinary VR Flynne steps into, drawn in the blurred, smoothed-over effect of modern video game animations, pales in comparison to the later one, swathed in crisp, polished details. Here, objects spontaneously dissolve into oh-so-satisfying pixelated dust, and as Flynne pauses to look on in awe, the camera seamlessly dances along wide scenic shots that bask in the opulence of this faux reality.

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