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TV vs. The Movies: Weighing ‘Mr. Robot’ Against ‘Blackhat’
February 4, 2016  | By Alex Strachan  | 6 comments
 

After the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards, Critics’ Choice Awards and numerous other citations, it’s no secret that Mr. Robot is the new buzzword in TV’s cultural echo chamber.

A modest, unassuming techno thriller from little-known New Jersey writer Sam Esmail, Mr. Robot struck an instant nerve with its timely, cynical and yet emotionally engaging tale of a reluctant computer hacker who takes on Big Power in a post-Ed Snowden world.

Mr. Robot, from a virtual unknown — Esmail was an IT student-technician in New York University’s computer lab before he “did something stupid” (his words) and was placed on academic probation — features a cast of little-known actors and one fading star, Christian Slater, in a virtual cameo role as a shadowy anarchist who runs a team of secret “hacktivists,” who try to right social wrongs by breaking into corporate computer networks.

Mr. Robot stars little-known actor Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson, a world-weary 20-something cybersecurity engineer who realizes the company he works for — and helps pay the rent on his down-market hovel in a neighborhood of overpriced real estate and little affordable housing — is trading in dirty money. Anderson suffers from social anxiety disorder and clinical depression. He sees himself as being neither a hero nor an antihero. His outlook on life is that he suffers, therefore he is. He’s the last person one would expect capable of taking on The Man, let alone being the lead character viewers are expected to relate to in a new, untested thriller on a commercial, ad-supported cable network (USA).

And yet everything about Mr. Robot — from the cool, polished sheen of its big-city look to the nervous desperation of minimum-wage tech workers who know one slight misstep at work could cost them their livelihood in an economy where more 20- and 30-year-olds are living at home than striking out on their own — reflects the very best of what the small screen has to offer today. A timely premise. Originality. A realistic tone and feel. Contemporary, adult dialogue that sounds real, even though it’s fiction. Solid, believable acting from actors you may have seen before in other things, but can’t quite place a name or face on them — Carly Chaikin, from Suburgatory and the Miley Cyrus film The Last Song; Martin Wallström, a Swedish character actor with a background in Nordic noir; Portia Doubleday, of the little-seen 2009 romcom Youth in Revolt and the 2013 remake of Carrie, and so on.

Mr. Robot is now on hiatus between its first and second seasons; its run at the awards table is similar to that of Better Call Saul, Empire, Transparent and Jane the Virgin, other series in contention for “outstanding new program” honors over the past year.

What do these programs share in common, other than their quality?

Exactly. They have nothing in common. They are uniquely original. With the exception of Saul, a spin-off in name only, and Jane, which was inspired by a Latin telenovela, they resemble nothing else on TV. Not one of them could have been considered a ratings grabber before it aired. Even AMC executives, if they were being honest with themselves, would have admitted Saul would come nowhere near Breaking Bad in terms of ratings or popularity, let alone commercial success.

If you’ve seen Mr. Robot, you already know what it’s about, and the effect it’s had on the public conversation. If you haven’t seen it, chances are you will soon. If it continues its streak at the Emmys and TV Critics Association Awards, which it shows every sign of doing, it will be the new popular talking point in TV. A Peabody Award is possible, if not already a given. With its subtle and not-so-subtle allusions to identity theft, invasion of privacy, social injustice, unwarranted wiretapping, economic inequality and the inextricably intertwined relationship between dirty money and Big Power, Mr. Robot is everything that the labored, obvious Billions isn’t: an old-fashioned morality play with a working-class hero and heroine you want to believe in and root for.

Media critics today often compare movies with TV shows, and find movies wanting. Few critics, though, on either side of the argument, take the time to make an actual side-by-side comparison. If they did, they would find that there are no easy conclusions to be made. Anyone can point to Emmy and Peabody picks Game of Thrones and The Honorable Woman Affair respectively and say they are better than Golden Raspberry finalists Fantastic Four or Fifty Shades of Gray.

A more telling comparison would be between Mr. Robot and the recent Michael Mann movie thriller Blackhat.

Mann is one of the big screen’s master stylists. With his early street noir thrillers like Thief, Manhunter, Heat and the more recent Collateral, Mann established a distinctive, signature look and feel that was immediately mimicked by TV, from CSI — featuring William Petersen, the same lead actor who anchored Manhunter — to Quantico.

Cinema can still do things that TV can’t — long silences, tell a single, self-contained story that, done well enough, like Casablanca or Chinatown, will stay with you for life.

Blackhat’s opening scene is a minutes-long long tracking shot of a tangled web of cyber cables, while eerie, throbbing electronic music hums in the background. This single tracking shot — too long for TV, even if it were made for HBO or Showtime — culminates in a deliberate, fiery short circuit. A cyber terrorist has hacked into a complex, supposedly secure computer system and is about to spark an explosive nuclear meltdown inside a power plant in Chai Wan, China.

The audience is then introduced to the main characters: studly matinee idol Chris Hemsworth miscast as a hacker serving a prison sentence for cyber crimes; Taiwanese-born actor Leehorn Wang as a Chinese military investigator who specializes in computer crime; and Wenzhou, China’s Tang Wei as his sister, an engineer with a unique insider’s knowledge of computer networks.

From there, Blackhat becomes a de-facto buddy movie — mismatched heroes forced to work together in a common cause, with hints of a romantic interest — played out against a backdrop of splashy special effects and costly, complicated action sequences. Character takes a back seat to plot and the relentless drive to get to the story’s conclusion.

After it’s over, though, and even before the reviews (mostly mixed) start coming in, it’s hard to escape the feeling that one has just sat through 133 minutes of ultimately forgettable entertainment.

Mr. Robot tells a similar story, but it feels much more assured and compelling, even though Mann is an established stylist and veteran of the big screen and Ismail is a virtual unknown. Mr. Robot is memorable where Blackhat is forgettable, in no small part because Mr. Robot takes what TV does best — focus on character, revealing small, personal details over time in brief, self-contained 44-minute episodes — and improves on it.

It’s that ability to make the audience care about a character, and care deeply, that brings viewers back week after week.

This is a new golden age for TV drama. Of that, there can be no question. The debate over whether TV is better than the movies or vice versa has never been thrown into starker relief than by comparing Blackhat and Mr. Robot, though.

It’s said that the movies use stars; TV makes stars. It’s also been said that TV provides better opportunities for female actors, especially middle-aged and older women, who take their craft seriously.

There’s another interesting character comparison to be made between Blackhat and the small screen.

Viola Davis has a small role in Blackhat as an FBI special agent tasked with keeping Hemsworth’s character in line. It’s a small, largely thankless role, and midway through the film — spoiler alert!— her character is killed in a shootout in Hong Kong.

Davis won the 2015 Emmy — the first African-American woman to do so — for lead actress in a drama for playing Washington, DC insider Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder.

That right there tells you all you need to know about TV and the movies, and why, given the option, you may want to consider Mr. Robot — or How to Get Away with Murder, for that matter — over Blackhat.

 
 
 
 
 
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6 Comments
 
 
MAS
Can you at least get the actor's name right, not to mention the main character's? Ketzerin already pointed this out and yet it's still not corrected. Lazy writing. And A good editor would have corrected that plus taken out about 300 words.
Feb 10, 2016   |  Reply
 
 
Nancy
Think it is a great show and well acted. Looking forward to season 2.
Feb 9, 2016   |  Reply
 
 
Bob516
Why is Christian Slater described as a fading star? It looks like he has been rather active over the past few years, based on his IMDB page.
Feb 4, 2016   |  Reply
 
 
Ketzerin
Rami Malek. Elliot Alderson.
Feb 4, 2016   |  Reply
 
 
Walter
Stopped watching Mr. Robot after the episode that contained a disgustingly GRAPHIC homosexual sex scene.
Feb 4, 2016   |  Reply
 
Oston
That scene wasn't about sex. It was about power. That's the only thing that makes it disgusting.
Feb 6, 2016
 
 
 
Bob516
"little-known New Jersey writer Sam Esmail"

"from a virtual unknown — Esmail"

"features a cast of little-known actors"

"Mr. Robot stars little-known actor Said Malek"

All this by the first sentence of the fourth paragraph. I could not read past that last "little known." I wasn't sure if this was sloppy writing or lazy writing, until I thought about the phrase " it’s no secret" in the opening. Hearing "its no secret' in commercials too often it is a now a boring catchphrase, which makes this seem like lazy writing.

BTW, I loved Mr. Robot, and would have liked to have finished this piece on the show. Unfortunately I could not.
Feb 4, 2016   |  Reply
 
Angela
Oh, the pain! To be made to feel offended by a critic's review and a graphic sex scene. (See comments 2 and 3.) And I first thought Bob's original comment was in such good form.
Feb 5, 2016
 
 
 
 
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