If you have made it to Season 4 of “Westworld,” you’re familiar with executive producers Lisa Joy and Johnathan Nolan’s unique brand of non-linear storytelling. Mind-bending sci-fi, immersive technology, philosophy of the human condition and lots of robots. Their latest project, “The Peripheral,” based on the award-winning novel by William Gibson, follows a similar meandering journey. However, instead of AI gaining sentience and attempting to code themselves into humanity, “The Peripheral” follows a young human woman in a small town trying to navigate an uncertain world by peering through the eyes of a doppelgänger droid into the future.
“The Peripheral,” the first two episodes of which are directed by Vincenzo Natali, begins with an eight-episode season on Prime Video that takes place in two different timelines. One, in rural Clayton, South Carolina, in 2032 where cybernetics in the military is the norm and you can 3D print a knee brace at the local store faster than you can pick up your mail. The other narrative takes place in the year 2100, where people can render an entire humanoid robot “peripheral” run on AI as a companion or worker. The two timelines connect through Flynne Fisher (Chloe Grace Moretz) as a time-traveling gamer who gets tangled in a future web of conspiracy.
Flynne and her brother Burton (Jack Reynor) live on the outskirts of town in a house with their mom, who has lost her vision to a brain tumor and is bedridden. Flynne works at the local 3D print shop while Burton, an honorably discharged Marine, collects unemployment and veteran’s benefits from his time in an unnamed war. They earn money by power leveling VR games for wealthy gamers that want to quickly up their avatar’s stats. Flynne is a better gamer, and her brother knows it, which is why he often subs her in to up their earnings.
But when Burton receives a 3D printed VR headset that looks suspiciously like a SQUID from “Strange Days” to Beta test, the pair soon discover this is no game. With the device, Flynne transports her mind to a future where she gets to wine, dine and even kill via a robot body. After one particularly gruesome and traumatic trip through the “game,” Flynne soon realizes that she is not merely a player and the world sees is very real.
She has been unknowingly pulled into a conspiracy in a dystopian future in London, England, where they have the technology to create doorways to the past by hacking virtual reality tech, latching onto the human consciousness attached to it, and downloading said consciousness into a peripheral. A human from the past can pilot a “body” in the future.
But doors open both ways, and when an opposing faction from the future sends mercenaries to take out Flynne and her family back in her reality, Burton and his cybernetically advanced Special Forces team are surprisingly ready for them.
No one is who they seem in this series, including Wilf Netherton (Gary Carr), a man from 2100 who explains the truth to Flynne about what’s truly happening. Naturally, their interests align as they are both in search of answers. But the clock is ticking in more ways than one as more assassins and future tech infiltrates Clayton, and Wilf’s alliances begin to unravel.
In the six episodes provided to the press in advance, three factions are battling for control of society in the future. The klept, post-national Russian oligarchs wrestling for control; the Research Institute, responsible for all future tech worldwide; and finally, the military-style Metropolitan Police, led by Inspector Ainsley Lowbeer (Alexandra Billings), out to maintain order in this new society.
Moretz gives an incredible performance in triplicate as Flynne, the struggling small-town girl holding her whole family together, her future bionic self, and the bot that is essentially a computer running in safe mode when Flynne’s consciousness detaches from the mainframe.
“The Peripheral” is bolstered by other top-tier talents as well, including T’Nia Miller as Cherise Neulan, the severe and sartorially stunning head of the Research Institute, and Eli Goree, who plays Connor, part of Burton’s Marine Corps unit who became a triple amputee after coming face to face with the business end of an IED. Connor’s mental struggles with his physical loss while attempting to maintain his dignity are emotionally palpable.
The 70-minute premiere brilliantly immerses the audience in both universes, placing important details like easter eggs in the sets, scenery, and dialogue. Aside from the peripherals themselves, Burton’s team’s cybernetics also steal the show. As each member can hack nearby tech and “drift” in and out of each other’s consciousness.
In addition to Billings’ casting, there is a subtle transgender story here as well, since identity in the future appears fluid, and several characters effortlessly place their consciousness into various peripherals regardless of gender.
Despite the stunning cinematography and outstanding production and costume design, “The Peripheral” can be a little confusing if you’re unfamiliar with time-traveling tropes, virtual reality avatars, and gaming side missions. In other words, if you didn’t make it through “Westworld,” you will probably have difficulty understanding this series at first. But if you are a fan of cyberpunk crime drama anime like “Ghost in the Shell” or “Psycho-Pass,” or are looking for something to scratch that “Westworld” itch, “The Peripheral” is a joy to watch.
“The Peripheral” premiered on Prime Video on Oct. 21 with the first two episodes, with one new episode released weekly on Fridays.