Complicated plots can be great fun, provided the action doesn’t stop for the show to explain what’s happening. “The Peripheral” has a tendency to do just that. The new Prime Video sci-fi series too often turns virtual reality into genuine boredom. Visually arresting at times, thematically compelling on occasion, it never really sets down any emotional roots. It’s an interesting idea in search of a good story.
Based on a novel by cyberpunk godfather William Gibson, “The Peripheral” starts with an intriguing if time-tested premise: What if the simulation was, in fact, the real thing? The year is 2032. Flynne (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a fiery Appalachian woman who makes good money beta testing VR simulations with her older brother, Burton (Jack Reynor), a tightly wound military veteran. One day Burton hands his sister a new headset that brings her to a futuristic London, the most vivid simulation Flynne has ever encountered. It turns out to be quite real and quite dangerous, and Flynne ends up a pawn in an elaborate espionage scheme that gradually permeates the border of her everyday life.
Nobody in “The Peripheral” seems terribly surprised by any of this. The futuristic London folks are calling? Huh. Interesting. What do they want? The future rings up an Appalachian drug kingpin (Louis Herthum) and offers him a boatload of cash to kill Flynne and her family; the kingpin shrugs and wonders how he might game the system.
There isn’t a lot of wonder in “The Peripheral” — with one exception: a look at London, 80 years from now. The city looks almost empty, reflecting a planet whose population has been decimated. Massive statues that seem to reflect antiquity tower over the skyline, seemingly carved into buildings. The streets shimmer like something out of a color film noir. It’s a weird, uncanny place, which is exactly what this series calls for.
It also makes for a compelling contrast to life in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where Flynne has turned herself into a sort of VR prodigy. There’s also a nice touch involving Burton and his war buddies, haptically connected to form a single, telepathically linked killing machine. “The Peripheral” does better with the small details than the big picture.
The bar is very high for these kinds of stories. We’re now 23 years removed from “The Matrix,” and from David Cronenberg’s often overlooked “eXistenZ,” in which a game designer becomes the target of a fatwa. Dozens of imitators have followed. The future, as they say, is now. At this point the hard part is not imagining such a world, but peopling it with carefully developed characters and giving them convincing motives and arcs. “The Peripheral” does this only sporadically. It mistakes concept and spectacle for story.
One enticement offered by a show set partly in London is a bevy of talented British actors. Among the standouts here are Gary Carr as Flynne’s guide in the alternate world, a man haunted by both his past and present; and T’Nia Miller, who exudes dry menace as the woman in charge of a malevolent body called the Research Institute. Both provide a quality that “The Peripheral” sorely needs: a human touch.