The portrayal of "hacking" has been abysmal in movies and television ever since Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum took down an alien invasion with a PowerBook in Independence Day. There’s something about the very notion itself that seems to foil most filmmakers, and even if they aren’t using it as a superpower to backdoor their characters out of a jam, they stumble when it comes to visuals — turning keystrokes and problem solving into overwrought special effects sequences with the visual coherence of a Michael Bay movie.
So I suppose I was a little bit skeptical about the SXSW premiere of Mr. Robot, a new thriller series from USA about a cyber-security engineer named Elliot (Rami Malek) who spends his nights hacking into people’s personal accounts to expose their hidden crimes. Christian Slater stars as the titular Mr. Robot, the Tyler Durden-esque leader of an underground group dedicated to taking down a monolithic mega-corp — and recruits Elliot to be part of his team.
The promotion at SXSW didn't help
Along with the program’s name, I’m sure some of my trepidation had to do with the promotion at SXSW this year. Elliot wears a black hoodie in the show, so of course USA had a legion of "brand ambassadors" roaming the halls, wearing sunglasses and Mr. Robot hoodies and just generally looking creepy. There was also some tie-in with the iBeacon network that SXSW is using this year that was supposed to send out push notifications, "giving attendees a sense that Mr. Robot is watching their activity and helping them ‘hack’ SXSW."
Like I said, the signs weren’t good.
So there I was, watching the pilot and making notes for what I fully expected to be a "7 ways Mr. Robot doesn’t understand computers" piece, when I suddenly found myself… impressed. Instead of the camera zooming through the innards of a laptop, there was Elliot, typing in a terminal window. Instead of using magical computer-god powers to find somebody’s phone number, he walked up to them and got it with some good old-fashioned social engineering. And when Elliot eventually did try to use a program to break into an account, he collected personal information about the subject to speed up the brute force attack — and then it didn’t even work.
A lot of that attention to detail comes courtesy of creator and executive producer Sam Esmail, who, it turns out, has similar feelings about the way computers have been portrayed in the past. "I’m sorry, but every movie and show about hacking is so fucking terrible!" he said in the post-screening Q&A. "And they feel like they have to do all these CGI graphics, and you’re like, ‘Hacking doesn’t look anything remotely like that.’ I’m sorry, Chris Hemsworth does not look like a hacker."
"I'm sorry, Chris Hemsworth does not look like a hacker."
While attempting to take the technology seriously is a big part of what makes Mr. Robot work, there’s something more important in play: the awareness that no amount of visual effects or spectacle will make hacking exciting if the characters are boring and the stories bland. Elliot is an unnerving loner, but not of the stuck-in-mom’s-basement variety we’re used to seeing. He’s got a drug problem, potentially a dissociative disorder, and while he’s going to therapy, he can’t help but spend his time analyzing his therapist instead. The way Malek plays him, Elliot is a manipulator of social mechanics first and foremost, and while he can’t sustain a conversation with somebody he cares about, he can play a total stranger to gain access to their thoughts, their feelings, or their personal information.
There’s also a blessed lack of over-explanation. When a company is hit with a DDOS attack, there’s no vanilla breakdown of what that is, and when a rootkit is discovered in a system later in the show, things don’t immediately grind to a halt so a supporting character can explain the concept. Esmail expects the viewer to keep up on their own, and the show makes it clear early on that it won’t do a lot to help you out if you can’t.
A show where checking out a server farm is exciting
Now, Mr. Robot does have more than its fair share of jargon soup. Elliot drops "AFK" and "IRL" as part of everyday conversation far too often, and he has a fish named "Qwerty" to prove how… keyboard-centric he is, I guess? But that’s outweighed by the show’s ability to create situations and scenarios around using computers that seem both realistic and genuinely dramatic. This isn’t just a show where somebody flies out to a server farm to deal with a problem, this is a show where checking out a server farm is exciting.
Mr. Robot comes out this summer, and I’m already looking forward to where the show will go from here, but the SXSW shenanigans could foreshadow a problem yet to come. Esmail has managed to create a show that doesn’t make hacking ridiculous, but he’ll need to find an audience to make it successful. Marketing campaigns that focus on goofy computer hijinks and spooky "hackers" are likely to turn off the very viewers the show should be scooping up. That would be a shame, because the show is better than its cheesy marketing and title would have you believe.
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