In 2018, the world’s first AI-written novel was revealed: 1 the Road. Although the response to the text was mixed, it sparked an important and terrifying discussion: how long will it be until computer-produced art floods the market and replaces human-made work? This prescient question is central to Paul Hyett’s new feature Peripheral where a computer slowly usurps a writer to become the main author behind the book. However, much like that first AI-produced piece of fiction, the response to this movie will likely be mixed. Although there is a lot to like, it’s unfortunately bogged down by confusing and clichéd choices.
Bobbi Johnson (Hannah Arterton) is a writer struggling to produce a follow-up to her celebrated debut novel, which was so popular and incendiary that it sparked nation-wide protests. Facing crippling bills and upcoming deadlines, Bobbi lets her publisher install a state-of-the-art computer for her to use – a device that supposedly takes the “work” out of writing. However, as her deadline nears, Bobbi feels the computer wield more power both over the new novel and herself, leaving her to question who is really in control.
The central conceit of this computer-influenced work is handled wonderfully, tapping into contemporary discussions with ease. Writer Dan Schaffer cleverly ties in ideas of capitalism and class-control with the use of AI; the computer represents themes of freedom and control. Peripheral its less about a robot writing a book and more about how the ruling class would use such a robot to oppress the disenfranchised. Reinforced by Hyett’s visual digital/analogue dichotomy and Arterton’s fantastic turn as woman-of-the-people Bobbi, this film is expertly placed to explore not only AI-produced work but also the ramifications of late-stage capitalism.
However, this excellent commentary is somewhat lost under a deluge of cliché choices. Between the junkie ex-boyfriend, money-obsessed boss, crazed stalker-fan and mysterious older man, Peripheral feels bereft of any original characterisation; there’s nothing here that we haven’t seen before. Moreover, ideas and motifs are introduced and dropped at breakneck speed, causing the viewer to wonder if what they’re seeing amounts to anything meaningful or is just a perfidious attempt to shock them. It’s a shame, as the underlying exploration of computer-aided art is fantastic, but the one-note characters and over-the-top gory imagery may be too much of a turn-off for the average viewer.
Peripheral is released digitally on demand on 3rd August 2020.
Watch the trailer for Peripheral here: