My notes on Peripheral – available digitally in the UK August 3.
A near-future fable directed by Paul Hyett (The Seasoning House, Prowl, Heretiks) from a script by Dan Schaffer (Doghouse) – which is carried by leading lady Hannah Arterton (House of Salem) as shut-in author Bobbi Johnson, who has unwittingly written the manifesto for an angry, rioting generation with her first novel (Bite the Hand) and is under various pressures to deliver her follow-up.
Living alone in a lo-tech environment, she uses a manual typewriter – when her electricity is cut off, her publisher Jordan (Belinda Stewart-Wilson) says that shouldn’t stop her producing copy – and has issues with drug-supplying ex-boyfriend Dylan (Elliot James Langridge), a deadline that looms closer, lack of funds and a nagging sense of responsibility for a social movement she started but doesn’t really relate to. In desperation, she accepts Jordan’s offer of a new form of super word-processor tailored to help her get her novel finished, but also to start tampering with it – changing the protagonist’s sex, tweaking the work in process to commercial (and even more sinister ends). ‘I thought computers were supposed to be getting smaller,’ comments Dylan as the sleek monster takes over the house and Bobbi finds herself in a battle with it that echoes the imprisonment of Julie Christie by a procreation-minded machine in Demon Seed – Bobbi, of course, is pregnant with a book, but finds her body invaded by another growing creation in nightmarish parallel to her work on a product she feels estranged from. The machine also puts her online, which means she catches up with the social media furore around Bite the Hand – notably a series of actual videos by a fan (Hyett regular Rosie Day) who projects her own meaning into the book and is desperate for affirmation from the creator (to the extent of self-mutilation). Eventually, as her mental and physical state deteriorates and the machine becomes more tyrannical, she is visited by (and lectured to) her literary idol (Tom Conti) and finally smooth mastermind Merlock (Jenny Seagrove), who has Frankensteined the creature into being and talks up a Network-level of social control.
This is Hyett’s third film about women being abused by tyrannical systems – and, as in Heretiks, the heroine is oppressed equally by a vast evil (there supernatural, here social) and female enablers who have directed it at her …it’s the most pertinent, pointed, interesting version of the theme, narrowing focus to a lone woman whose confinement is at least partly voluntary and showcasing a harrowing performance from Arterton. The script is heavy on the literary debate, with chat about Henry Miller, Vonnegut and Shakespeare as well as well-observed barbs about contemporary publishing and the way technology designed to be helpful (spell-check, grammarly) can begin to seem overbearing (Isaac Asimov wrote a story, ‘Galley Slave’, on this theme well before WPs were conceived). If it’s heavy on the editorial content, then that’s still unusual enough in UK low-budget science fiction to make it stand out.
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