Mr. Robot: The Essential Cinematic Inspirations – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this special Wisecrack Edition on USA’s Mr. Robot, where we dive head-first into the cinematic references and inspirations of the show. We’ll explore specific influences, including Fight Club, The Matrix, American Psycho, Taxi Driver and Natural Born Killers.
Written by: Matt Reichle
Narrated and Directed by: Jared Bauer
Assitant Directed by: Camille Lecoq
Edited by: John Baldino and Ryan Hailey (http://www.ryanhaileydotcom.com/)
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Jacob Salamon
Mr. Robot: The Essential Cinematic Inspirations
Hey Wisecrack. Jared here. Today we’re talking about one of the boldest shows on the air right now, and a Wisecrack favorite- Mr. Robot. While the show’s protagonist Elliot Alderson hacks his friends, his psychiatrist, hospitals, and the FBI, series creator Sam Esmail hacks cinema- constantly borrowing from iconic films. Esmail penly embraces the theft of his cinematic heroes, having said in a recent interview:
At first glance it may seem like Mr. Robot is just shamelessly ripping off other films, but what makes it different from dumpster fires like Atlantic Rim, Transmorphers, and Chop Kick Panda has to do with art theory. Tracing produces a poor version of the original. Collage creates something new entirely. Perhaps Mr. Robot could be called a mash up, a remix, an homage, or pastiche. Perhaps it is just plagiarism—but in a world where everything seems to be a copy of a copy of a copy—is there anything original left to steal? Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition the Cinematic Influences of Mr. Robot. Oh- and if you were hoping for a “Philosophy of” episode- don’t worry, we’re working on it. Also- spoilers ahead.
In many ways, Mr. Robot is a sort of digital update of Fight Club. Whereas Mr. Robot portrays the psychological struggles of the leader of a cyber terrorist group. Fight club plays in the analog world: the psychologically troubled protagonist and his cronies pick physical fights with Project Mayhem, covering car dealerships with bird poop, and blowing up buildings. Project mayhem prefers physical acts of terrorism—F Society takes the fight to the new frontier: the web.
Tyler is Cornelius, Jack, Rupert, Lenny—he lives a life as a single serving fiend—he travels and applies the risk formula—he is completely detached from the harsh reality of his work. Elliott refers to himself as “a regular cyber security engineer. Employee number Er28-0652.” Reduced to pure object—to a cog in the corporate machine—Tyler and Elliott revolt against their working conditions and the conglomerates that create disposable populations as byproducts of a quest for profit. Elliott and Edward Norton’s chatter with the camera both take on the same monotonous cadence of a broken down corporate stooge—dejected and disaffected by their meaningless work.
F*society wants to erase debt by taking down a global conglomerate that is too big to fail… along the way they cut off the charging bull’s balls and drop them through the roof of congress. And Project Mayhem is a terrorist group that wants to erase the worlds debt by blowing up a bunch of buildings… along the way their members threaten to cut off… human… balls. There’s the SUPER obvious—Elliott being Mr. Robot and Tyler being the nameless narrator parallel—which is punctuated by “where is my mind” playing when Elliott meets Tyrell in the arcade.
When Mr. Robot and Elliott fight in a coffee shop- it might as well be Brad and Ed scrapping all over town. Both share some serious god issues. Tyler chemical burns little kisses on the back of hands while ranting about the fact that god hates you while Elliott thinks religion is just metastasizing mind worms—set up to control the masses.
When Elliott shows up to work after getting pushed off of the Coney Island Pier his conversation with Gideon is oddly close to Edward Norton’s chat with his boss. Tyler has a serious problem with sleep, and so does Elliott after taking all the Adderall in the penitentiary. Like all the Adderall. Both share a need for healing—whether it’s the testicular cancer support club that Tyler haunts or the prison bible study group that Elliott demolishes.
More than just reference for reference sake, Mr. Robot and Fight Club are thematically intertwined. Both show the alienated white color worker—they explore the disconnected reality of living in a world where your worth is dictated by virtual production- and they both show it burn to the ground. When Mr. Robot and Elliott decide to start fighting in a coffee shop—it might as well be Brad and Ed fighting all over town.
Elliot ALDERSON is a computer hacker otherwise known as Mr. Robot. Thomas ANDERSON is a computer hacker otherwise known as Neo. Both work in a corporate wasteland of cubicles and dress codes—they’re both seem to be lacking purpose or direction in their lives- until they’re approached by a mysterious enigmatic father figure- in the case of Mr. Robot, literally- I guess. Both are followed by men in black and stuffed into government type vehicles. And Both of them know kung fu. Wait. That’s not right.
While the Matrix is a computer system that obscures the reality of a world where people provide energy for artificial intelligence, Mr. Robot is about a world of mystification: where everyday worker’s social interactions… their social media presence, vices, and routines all hide the fact that the world that we live in is a brutal place. There is no Matrix—just the hidden reality of late modern corporate capitalism. In Mr. Robot the matrix isn’t a literal alternate reality, it is the virtual world of money—the matrix is a lot like the normal world that Elliot experiences when he thinks that F* Society is finished… when “Steal My Sunshine” plays and he decides that he is going to be normal, ask Shayla to be his girlfriend, see marvel movies, join a gym, heart things on Instagram… drink vanilla lattes…
Elliot sort of lapses back into the matrix—like Cypher blissfully eating a steak with Agent Smith. It is the commercial identity that is sold to people via social media and advertising—the very thing that Elliott hacks. The scene on the Ferris wheel between Elliott and Mr. Robot parallels the famous pill scene between Morpheus and Neo. Like Neo, Elliot is also the one ((or is he the two or three… dissociative identity order complicates everything)) to bring about “the single biggest incident of wealth redistribution in history.” While Neo liberates the people of Zion from the matrix—Elliot aims to free us from the crushing banality of our everyday lives… oh and massive student debt…
Wall Street Exec Patrick Bateman is a nihilistic mess; he lives of a life of absolute dissatisfaction. Tyrell Wellick is a clear reference to Bateman—the senior VP of technology at E-corp… while certain things are evidently similar to Bateman—like his workout routine—and his random killing of Shannon Knowles on a roof… there are some more subtle references to American Psycho. In season one episode four there’s nice a Dorsia allusion… and while the exclusive VIP experience at Steel mountain doesn’t serve quail stuffed into blue corn tortillas garnished with oysters in potato skins, it is better than the food court.
In the same episode he seduces Knowles’ male secretary—Bateman has a similar moment in a bathroom stall. For Tyrell sex is simply a tactic to achieve an end—there is no enjoyment—no feeling—he reluctantly comes home and ties his wife up. For Bateman it’s just narcissistic gratification with prostitutes while he flexes and points at himself in the mirror. In Season one, Tyrell pays a homeless man to beat the hell out of him—which is reminiscent of the pain that Bateman puts prostitutes through and… well, the homeless dude Bateman stabs in front of the guy’s dog.
For both characters, people are merely a means to an end- no more valuable than their dress shirts or business cards. There is no intimacy, only transactions. Esmail has explained that pretty much all things Kubrick have influenced him. Whether it be the frequent use of wide angle shots, the amount of space above characters in each shot, or the Title cards from A Clockwork Orange—Mr. Robot aspires to look like a season long Kubrick film.
In Season 2 Romero goes into the gruesome history of the Fun Society arcade- which sounds eerily similar to the history of the Overlook Hotel. Elliott scribbling away in his journal—might as well be typing: “All work and No play makes Jack a Dull boy” over and over. One of the central premises of A Clockwork Orange is control: a machinery of power that determines social behavior by prison rehabilitation and the Ludovico Technique. Elliott and Alex are the bugs in an otherwise orderly system—attempting to resist the crushing weight of an oppressive system of control.
Much like American Psycho and Fight Club, Taxi Driver is a brief snippet of a person’s dissent into madness—and their motivation for attempting to change their current miserable existence. Both Elliot and Travid Bickle are social outcasts consumed by grief and loneliness—they both talk to their imaginary friend. Travis and Elliott are fed up with the status quo. Travis, a Vietnam Vet, is disgusted by the animals that come out at night- the pushers, whores, dopers; and Elliott is pissed at a society that believes that Steve Jobs is a great man—he loathes bullshit commentary and fake social media intimacy.
Elliott and Travis both write in their handy dandy notebooks and are both utterly lonely. They’ve got big city problems—the creeping cosmopolitan type of alienation that comes from being one person among ten million. Travis says that “Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.” Travis rants to Betsy about how she is a lonely person, about how something is missing in her life—and this is neatly mirrored by Elliot’s conversation with Krista and her struggles with loneliness.
Let’s face it they’re both weird dudes that zone out a lot. If the seventies creepy worker was a cabbie— the millennial version is a cybersecurity tech guru. The violence in Mr. Robot is also quite similar. Travis and Elliott both use their imaginations to shoot themselves in the head. Perhaps it reveals their suicidal drive and self-hatred. Perhaps it is a commentary that revolutionary figures have to be prepared to accept the consequences of their actions.
Fernado Vara is the modern update of Matthew Aka Sport’s—instead of pimping—Vara flips scripts. The first time Vara is introduced he’s man-handling Shayla by a car. The first time Sport is introduced, he is pulling Iris out of the back of Travis’ cab. While Vara doesn’t get killed (yet) there is an interesting inversion. At the end of Taxi Driver Sport gets killed and at the middle of Season one Shayla gets killed instead.
Natural Born Killers focuses on our fascination with the spectacular violence of our media driven environment. While it may not be a major theme of Mr. Robot—there is some parallel commentary. When an ecorp tech EVP James Plouffe commits suicide the blinking red light of the camera is a reminder that this spectacle is for viewing pleasure. But Nowhere is the connection to Natural Born Killers more clear than in season two episode five. After Elliott is beaten to hell by Ray’s boys he wakes up in some sort of episode of Full House… slash Alf… This scene is essentially the same as the “I love Mallory” scene in Natural Born Killers—a sitcom parody with a laugh track and overt domestic violence.
What the audience experiences isn’t Elliott’s life or Mallory’s life: it’s life as television—as events remembered and filtered through a 1980’s technicolor dream. Between the random changes in color, constant flashbacks, cartoons, and random images everywhere—it is clear that the point of view of Natural Born Killers is skewed by the warped perspective of Micky and Mallory—the viewer receives the film through their psychotic lens.
This is by no means unique to Natural Born Killers but both properties use similar techniques to communicate distorted thinking. In Mr. Robot, the audience is Elliott’s imaginary friend—what we see and hear is entirely manipulated by Elliott—whether it be changing E corp to Evil Corp—or expertly hiding the fact that an entire season is actually taking place in jail… the world that the viewer is allowed to glimpse is only what Elliott permits.
At a time when everyone seems to be making remake after remake Mr. Robot simply samples. Instead of regurgitating another lifeless revamp—Mr. Robot offers a carefully sly remix. The excessiveness of it—the constant riffing, lifting, and stealing seems to make it okay—as if to say: if there’s nothing new under the sun, fuck it… it’s okay to stick with what you love.
Perhaps Mr. Robot is an attempt to re-connect—to build on classic tropes in order to reclaim some sense of familiarity in an increasingly alienating world a sort of nostalgic re-run that we, Elliot’s imaginary friend, have the privilege to view. Perhaps watching Mr. Robot is like being in on a great pop culture inside joke—perhaps it’s just theft.