Mr. Robot: finally, a hacking show that won’t make you facepalm.
he portrayal of “hacking” has been abysmal in movies and television ever since Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum took down an alien invasion with a PowerBook in Independence Day. There’s something about the very notion itself that seems to foil most filmmakers, and even if they aren’t using it as a superpower to backdoor their characters out of a jam, they stumble when it comes to visuals — turning keystrokes and problem solving into overwrought special effects sequences with the visual coherence of a Michael Bay movie.
So I suppose I was a little bit skeptical about the SXSW premiere of Mr. Robot, a new thriller series from USA about a cyber-security engineer named Elliot (Rami Malek) who spends his nights hacking into people’s personal accounts to expose their hidden crimes. Christian Slater stars as the titular Mr. Robot, the Tyler Durden-esque leader of an underground group dedicated to taking down a monolithic mega-corp — and recruits Elliot to be part of his team.
The promotion at SXSW didn’t help
Along with the program’s name, I’m sure some of my trepidation had to do with the promotion at SXSW this year. Elliot wears a black hoodie in the show, so of course USA had a legion of “brand ambassadors” roaming the halls, wearing sunglasses and Mr. Robot hoodies and just generally looking creepy. There was also some tie-in with the iBeacon network that SXSW is using this year that was supposed to send out push notifications, “giving attendees a sense that Mr. Robot is watching their activity and helping them ‘hack’ SXSW.”
Like I said, the signs weren’t good.
So there I was, watching the pilot and making notes for what I fully expected to be a “7 ways Mr. Robot doesn’t understand computers” piece, when I suddenly found myself… impressed. Instead of the camera zooming through the innards of a laptop, there was Elliot, typing in a terminal window. Instead of using magical computer-god powers to find somebody’s phone number, he walked up to them and got it with some good old-fashioned social engineering. And when Elliot eventually did try to use a program to break into an account, he collected personal information about the subject to speed up the brute force attack — and then it didn’t even work.
A lot of that attention to detail comes courtesy of creator and executive producer Sam Esmail, who, it turns out, has similar feelings about the way computers have been portrayed in the past. “I’m sorry, but every movie and show about hacking is so fucking terrible!” he said in the post-screening Q&A. “And they feel like they have to do all these CGI graphics, and you’re like, ‘Hacking doesn’t look anything remotely like that.