There has always been a tension between profitability and artistic expression in creative fields. Sure, there are plenty of works that are both genuine expressions of creative intension and highly profitable cultural artifacts, but they are few and far between. As such, there will always be a battle between those who believe that the purpose of art is to challenge and enlighten audiences, and those who believe it only exists to entertain, pacify and promote the status quo.
PERIPHERAL argues that the ones with the money and power to win that argument are on the side of not only using art as benign entertainment, but malignant pacification of the populace. This message is delivered with all the subtlety of a chainsaw in this hallucinogenic cross-breed of Ex Machina and Videodrome from director Paul Hyett (best known for his make-up effects work on such films as The Descent, Doomsday, and Eden Lake).
In PERIPHERAL¸ Hannah Arterton plays Bobbi Johnson, the UK’s newest literary sensation. Her first novel was so effective at capturing the ethos of post-millennial malaise that literal riots followed in the wake of its release, despite her complete disinterest in being a revolutionary. Idolizing figures like Vonnegut and Kerouac, she prefers the organic process of putting out pages on her ancient typewriter, and she scorns computers and social media. This all changes when her editor convinces her to use their new artificial intelligence editing software in exchange for paying her massive debts. This insidious machine worms its way into all aspects of her life in truly surreal and disturbing ways, until she becomes uncertain where she ends and the machine begins.
This film is not the straightforward low sci-fi drama I was expecting it to be. It veers back and forth between a very claustrophobic story of a shut-in dealing with the stress of deadlines, the lack of purpose in her work, a drug-addicted ex-boyfriend, a plastic-surgery obsessed editor, and a psychotic fan who would make Eminem’s “Stan” look polite and reasonable in comparison. The other half of the film is a psychedelic visual metaphor for the purity of the creative process being corrupted by drugs and technology to the point of losing all meaning. I won’t go into the specific visual metaphors used, as some are quite shocking. At the same time, they are somewhat clumsy and heavy-handed. Still, they are quite effective at creating a sense of unease in the audience.
PERIPHERAL is obviously a film with a clear message, and one that I can relate to as a writer. As someone who doesn’t possess overwhelming creative talent, I’ll admit I often approach it as more of a craft than an artform. But I’m forced to question whether the formulas and structures I rely on for my writing do anything to enhance the experience of my audience, or simply ensure more of them might read it? And if that’s true, is that really a bad thing? PERIPHERAL argues that it is, and it’s more than a little convincing in that regard.