This image is from the official press kit for “The Peripheral,” distributed by Prime Video.

As popular and prevalent as they may be, well-done sci-fis are a tough nut to crack. Often characterized by imaginative plots, they explore idealistic futures cloaked as alternate realities, the extraterrestrial and inconceivable technological innovations. Recent hits like “Black Mirror” and “Westworld” struck gold by not only reshaping the bounds of an audience’s perception of the abnormal and otherworldly, but by making sharp, insightful commentary on the social-political state of the real world. Yet despite being so adept for screen adaptations, sci-fis tend to get so caught up in their own visionary genius that they neglect to provide the basics of the well-written plot and fleshed-out characters necessary to ground such high-scale aesthetics. 

Such is, quite unfortunately, the case with Prime Video’s recent adaptation of William Gibson’s 2014 cyberpunk sci-fi novel of the same name, “The Peripheral.” Set in a desolate rural small town in the near future, the story centers around clever, ever-resourceful Flynne Fisher (Chloë Grace Moretz, “Carrie”) and her brother Burton (Jack Reynor, “Midsommar”), who care for their sick mother Ella (Melinda Page Hamilton, “Sleeping Dogs Lie”) and make ends meet by beta-testing “sims,” an advanced version of modern-day virtual reality video games. The pilot kicks off with the siblings receiving mysterious new technology from a cryptic Colombian company and discovering a sim of an eerily futuristic London that isn’t as fake as they presume it to be. Though it’s a visually stunning feat of television, “The Peripheral” sorely lacks the narrative substance or compelling cast of characters required to hook its audience beyond the mirage of grand sights and sounds that comprise its high-budget special effects. 

In all fairness, the show’s confidence in its technical and visual techniques is well-founded. This premiere episode alone delivers an exemplary sequence of Flynne’s first entry into the sim, with a dazzling, glamorous visage, which works to hide the foreboding undertones of an ominous AI voice instructing her every move and the semi-sentient mannequin-esque androids at every turn. Clear care was taken to emphasize the contrast between the two realities that arise as the narrative jumps in and out of the sim; scenic shifts from the bleak, barren landscape of Flynne’s present-day life to the sleek, shiny future London are about as jarring as entering an Apple Store from the back-door of a deserted 7-11. The shimmering glow and sonic speed-rush of being thrown head-first into these scenes place the viewer in Flynne’s shoes, overwhelmed by the decadence of this reality in comparison to her own. Even the first ordinary VR Flynne steps into, drawn in the blurred, smoothed-over effect of modern video game animations, pales in comparison to the later one, swathed in crisp, polished details. Here, objects spontaneously dissolve into oh-so-satisfying pixelated dust, and as Flynne pauses to look on in awe, the camera seamlessly dances along wide scenic shots that bask in the opulence of this faux reality.

But these superficially alluring scenes only last so long before Flynne is pulled back to the drab, dismal reality she calls home, and us along with her. Perhaps the current dynamic of screen time spent split between these two realities will change in future episodes, but from the basis of this premiere alone, the returns to drab reality greatly weigh down the story’s momentum. They’re flooded with glimpses of minor characters and dull B-plot lines that could either be significant contextual background or throwaway expository set-up. I lean towards the latter option because, as complicated and mysterious as this show strives to appear, it absolutely refuses to let important details go by without blatantly pronouncing their arrival. Unable to hint at things without having a character directly state it in the dialogue, one quickly grows tired of the show’s weak ventures into a deep plot or questionably moral characters.

For instance, in a scene where Flynne gets injured in virtual reality, the camera pointedly flashes to a noticeably mechanical hand where her flesh and bones should be. Instead of letting the audience come to their own conclusion regarding this strange occurrence, the following scene depicts Flynne giving a long-winded “something is off” spiel — as if the only way to make her seem suspicious or clever enough to pick up on an obvious clue is to spell it out to us. Another scene quite literally includes a character explicitly referencing something as “the one thing we all agree never to talk about” and then proceeding to talk all about it. Did they attend the Mickey Mouseketeer School of Hinting at Things? Leave an air of mystery, I beg of you! The entire dialogue of certain scenes reads like an attention-seeking magician performing a trick with something up their sleeve that keeps interrupting their own act to say “Look! Did you notice I had something up my sleeve?”

With sci-fi’s trademark complex and intricate plots, the potential for confusion is understandable. But in an effort to prevent viewers from getting lost, the show cuts off any and all direct paths to piqued curiosity or general interest that would ordinarily sustain the desire to continue watching. The result is an abundance of trivially captivating hype with no real heart. Maybe there is an ingenious, cleverly crafted plot at the base of this story, but I simply do not have the will to stick around and find out. If you do want a fun, “head-empty” but good vibes sci-fi, just go ahead and watch “Tron: Legacy.” The story’s not all that, but it’s got a Daft Punk score and Jeff Bridges, which is certainly a lot more than this show can boast.   

Daily Arts Writer Serena Irani can be reached at seirani@umich.edu.