How Mr. Robot Took Fight Club and Perfected it for a New Generation

TV Features Mr Robot

Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot so closely resembles the work of David Fincher, you have to wonder how Fincher must feel about the fact that Esmail has so effortlessly been able to bring the man’s style to the small-screen, even when Fincher himself seemingly can’t (Fincher’s an executive producer on House of Cards, but his proposed two shows as director, producer, and co-writer Utopia and Video Synchronicity have stalled). This is a mischievous, darkly humorous show, lensed in a murky Fincher-style sheen and scored in digital sonics like Fincher’s last three Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross-backed films. It evokes The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in its tech savvy; brings to mind Gone Girl in its portrayal of everyday psychopathy; harks back to The Game in its defeated existentialism.

The Fincher project that Mr. Robot resembles most though is, of course, Fight Club. You can sense the same pang of arch cynicism from the start, with the same subversive critique of modern culture delivered by a weary protagonist, whose dry narration allows us to peer behind the exterior of an outwardly normal office drone. In Fight Club, you have Edward Norton’s Narrator; in Mr. Robot, you have Rami Malek’s Elliot. They’re not so different: both want a different world, one free of the tyranny of giant corporations, but neither are sure how to go about changing it. They each live largely solitary existences, have damaged love interests, and keep charismatic revolutionaries as mentor-companions. They also share one other key trait: undiagnosed schizophrenia.

Before the twist at the end of Mr. Robot Season One’s second act (it’s best to think of the first season as one overarching story; Esmail originally envisioned the series as a movie, after all), most had already made the Fight Club connection. When it was revealed Christian Slater’s Mr. Robot was really a part of Elliot, like Tyler Durden was really a part of Ed Norton’s Narrator, the link was undeniable. If Mr. Robot didn’t already look, sound, and apparently think in the same way asFight Club, it turned out that its ‘hero’ possessed an almost identical arc to Fight Club’s own, with the two basically being bored workers joining an underground revolution fronted by a mercurial leader, only to find out later that he was that same leader. The list of differences would be much shorter than the list of similarities.

Full disclosure: I’m an enormous David Fincher fan, but last year I wrote a piece arguing that his Fight Club was not the classic that it’s been widely embraced as. My take was—and still is—that it’s a film of great style and ideas, hampered by numerous problematic elements. It’s a film that people constantly tell me I should love, despite its coldness, its cruelty, its harsh humour aimed at the very audience members who’ve come to adore it. I’ve never been able to embrace Fight Club; but with Mr. Robot season one, I feel like I finally have that version of Fight Club that so many tell me is a masterpiece. And I’m not alone in thinking this spectacular new show took the template for Fight Club and did it better.

Over at Buzzfeed, Ariana Lange has argued that, while Mr. Robot “loves women,” Fight Club flat-out “hates them.” It’s one of the most troubling aspects of Fincher’s film—dominated by men and having its one female character, Marla Singer, act as a “penis crutch” (as Lange puts it), Fight Club barely tries to disguise its sympathy for the one gender and lack of it for the other. Mr. Robot, as Lange observes, is more inclusive, drawing female characters like human beings and giving them space to put forward more than just the one male-oriented worldview. Mr. Robot has, in Elliot, a male lead with a similar make-up to Fight Club’s own, but Mr. Robot’s female characters are, conversely, individually compelling, with their purpose moving well beyond simply helping to tell the male lead’s tale.

Flagrant misogyny isn’t the only issue of Fight Club’s that Mr. Robot corrects in its version of the story. Where Mr. Robot has affection for its characters, Fight Club has little to none, playing for one the death of Meat Loaf’s Bob (with his “bitch tits”) for gross-out laughs. Where Mr. Robotattempts to give the audience some understanding of social anxiety and mental illness, Fight Club uses it as a narrative device and—after the reveal—mines the Narrator’s schizophrenia for comedy. Where Mr. Robot is serious about the problems of the world and possesses a real passion for the plight of the 99%, Fight Club’s anger stems from self-interested male quarter-life crises and middle-class malaise (an oh-so-privileged sort of suffering).

Where Mr. Robot treats the audience like an equal—like its fans are smart enough to understand its labyrinthine plot and tech talk—Fight Club features beautiful millionaire Brad Pitt telling the viewer they’re worthless. Most indicative of how hollow one is in comparison to the other, though, is this: Where Mr. Robot avoids name brands unless its satirizing, Fight Club is enormously hypocritical in its ‘hatred’ of corporations. In Mr. Robot, it’s the all-encompassingly generic (and fake) Evil Corp that comes in for criticism; in Fight Club it’s Apple, BMW, Starbucks, Ikea, all of whom part-funded the film, using Fincher’s ‘revolutionary’ movie as advertising space.

I’ll go further and argue that Mr. Robot’s phenomenal Rami Malek makes for a more interesting lead than Fight Club’s Edward Norton, an actor likened to Robert De Niro despite never giving a performance to warrant such a comparison; that Mr. Robot makes violence appear abhorrent, whereas Fight Club appears to relish in it; that the voiceover in Mr. Robot is used in a more groundbreaking way. But what it comes down to is this: while the two share a great deal of familiar elements, Fight Club is a solipsistic, middle-aged male fantasy, where Mr. Robot is a more welcoming, earnest plea with the world to wake up and save itself.

Mr. Robot Season One is, according to Esmail, only the first act of a story he already has mapped out in his head. There are apparently three or four more seasons to come, meaning the show’s Fight Club-esque opening salvo is just the starter course for a bigger whole meal. It remains to be seen whether Esmail will go on to take heavy inspiration from elsewhere, or branch out with his own unique tale, but now that the Fight Club tale has already been told, Esmail will inevitably have to leave that narrative behind. All the same, Mr. Robot’s premiere season in isolation remains Fight Club’s better, a more compassionate, genuine, open call-to-arms. It’s Fight Club 2.0, a 2015 upgrade for a new generation; it’s David Fincher’s alleged classic taken, improved upon, and perfected.

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