Toward the end Season 1 of summer’s most out-of-left-field hit “Mr. Robot,” Elliot the “hero” of the show begins to realize certain things about himself and his psyche.
Viewers gradually grasp that the jaded computer hacker and the true identities of those around him may not be what he told us while narrating his twisted tale. As this realization occurs, the music playing during the this-changes-everything moment is a haunting piano melody … “Where Is My Mind?” by The Pixies.
But there is a lot more to the music selection than simple admiration for the punk/pop pioneers’ 1988 “Surfer Rosa” track. Movie buffs know that “Mind” is the music behind the climactic scene in “Fight Club” where the buildings come crashing down. And its presence, as such, is an open tip of the cap from series mastermind Sam Esmail, whose many impressive achievements with the show include an ability to make it the most cinematic program on TV — and openly acknowledge the cinema that makes “Mr. Robot” tick.
With that in mind, here are five films that “Mr. Robot” could not exist without — and the ways in which Esmail gives them props.
1. ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971)
Esmail is a Stanley Kubrick disciple of the highest order, and clearly he has studied the master well. Each episode of “Mr. Robot” is edited to temp tracks from Kubrick’s films, and he pays slavish devotion to the image over which he places the show’s “Clockwork Orange”-reminiscent title.
Much like Alex, the main sociopath in Kubrick’s masterpiece, Esmail’s Elliot is a young man who on the outside seems to be in control — whether it’s raping or hacking, “ultraviolence” or taking down international organizations, on the surface these men seem like they are the engine in their own sick stories. But in truth, both tales are about the bigger picture, the behind-the-scenes power brokers whose machinery will chew up and spit out a young man if it means more money, more power, more sedation of the masses.
Watching the first season of “Mr. Robot,” you could certainly fill this entire post with Kubrick films (the look of so many interior shots owes to “Eyes Wide Shut,” the breakdown of social niceties (remember Tyrell’s awkward dinner conversation with Scott and Sharon Knowles?) is in everything from “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “The Shining” and “Lolita,” but it is “Clockwork” that seems to most profoundly influence Elliot’s existence.
2. ‘They Live’ (1988)
In a particularly striking, high-concept scene from episode 7, Elliot looks around the AllSafe offices and sees his co-workers for who they are — each one is wearing a sign around their neck, visible only to him. The signs reveal their adulteries, insecurities and a general sense of tragedy as they shuffle around the workplace, slaves to their secrets.
The scene is also a twist on “They Live,” the John Carpenter cult classic starring the recently-departed “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. That film’s striking visuals showed a similar behind-the-scenes-of-life reality that had humans enslaved by skull-faced aliens who manipulated their minds by posting messages like “obey” and “stay asleep” within popular magazines and enormous billboards. Although this scene may be Esmail’s most direct wink to “They Live,” his show’s tone and general outlook on the nature of worker/slave vs. boss/ruler couldn’t exist without its influence.
3. ‘American Psycho’ (2000)
Bret Easton Ellis may have given birth to Patrick Bateman, but it was Mary Harron who cemented his image in the collective consciousness of American pop culture — and quite clearly Esmail as well. In her film “American Psycho,” Christian Bale’s Bateman is a smooth-talking, suit-wearing, greased-hair golden child on his way up the corporate ladder; underneath the facade, however, is a slowly rising psychopathic mindset that needs to be fed even if it is at the risk of his work life. Sound familiar?
4. ‘Black Swan’ (2010)
This is another “influenced by the entire canon of” entry, but Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 Oscar-winner descended into the depths of hell while chronicling the demented relationships between highly-competitive women who fear that any mistake could be their last.
Not only do the female characters in “Mr. Robot” owe a debt of gratitude to Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, but the entire show is quite aware of such Aronofsky films as “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream.” Aronofsky’s hallmarks — rapid editing, visuals that make the viewer unsettled, attempts to portray drug use visually — are similar coals in Esmail’s furnace.
5. ‘Fight Club’ (1999)
As mentioned above, however, there is no one film whose influence in “Mr. Robot” is more profound than David Fincher’s classic flick about an underground group trying to take back society, destroy all records of debt and make the world a better place in their twisted worldview.
In the film, Edward Norton’s narrator tells us an entire story — then proves to be unreliable because of mental illness. In “Mr. Robot” … well, no spoilers here, but you get the point. Both are brilliantly-created pieces of pop culture that serve to entertain, thrill and disturb. And both seem to ultimately have a similar message: Sometimes, it seems, your worst enemy can be your own mind.