BY ETHAN ALTER
Before it became an acclaimed summer hit for USA, Mr. Robot was a feature film script buried inside the mind of Sam Esmail. “I wrote it with the intention of making it as an independent film,” the New Jersey-born writer/director told Yahoo TV before the show’s premiere in June. “The first season is really the first act of what the feature would been — it’s ending where I’d want the first 30 pages of the film to end.”
Based on what we saw in the Sept. 2 season finale, that would have been a killer 30 pages. During the course of its 10-episode run, Mr. Robot continuously defied audience expectations, routinely shaking up what we knew — or thought we knew — about the main character, Elliot (Rami Malek), not to mention reality itself. Elliot’s already-fractured mind splintered further over the course of this hour as he sought to locate vanished Evil Corp executive Tyrell (Martin Wallstrom), even as their hack threatened to destabilize both that omnipresent corporation and the world’s economy.
Even though Mr. Robot ultimately went the television route, its creator made a point of folding numerous cinematic homages into the series, overtly and subtly referencing the work of such filmmakers as Stanley Kubrick, David Fincher, and Paul Thomas Anderson. Far from simply repurposing familiar big screen imagery, he recontextualized these allusions in a way that made them seem excitingly new. Eager-eyed film buffs probably noticed that the finale featured four particular sequences — including the scene that led the finale to be delayed a week from its original airdate — that echoed four specific films. Yahoo TV spoke with Esmail about these moments and the movies that inspired them.[Warning: Spoilers for the finale follow.]
The Suicide (2001: A Space Odyssey)
Esmail has openly acknowledged the influence of Stanley Kubrick on the show’s visual style, naming A Clockwork Orange and The Shining as particular points of reference. “I don’t know if we have done 2001 yet, but at some point I’ll borrow from it. Elliot will go into space,” he jokinglytold Vulture in July.
Fortunately for Malek, Elliot didn’t have to don astronaut gear after all. The movie 2001 got its close-up (literally) in the finale’s most shocking — and controversial — moment, when Evil Corp executive James Plouffe (Richard Bekins) sat down to be grilled by a network news anchor about the company’s Elliot- and Tyrell-inflicted wounds. In a striking choice, we never see the anchor interrogating Plouffe; instead Esmail (who wrote and directed the finale) focuses on the unblinking eye of the camera filming the squirming man. It’s the same unblinking eye with which HAL 9000 dispassionately regards the two-man crew of Discovery, Dave Bowman (Kier Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood). “When I saw 2001, I remember being scared s–tless by HAL’s eye,” Esmail says. “Kubrick did something very smart: the camera didn’t move, it was completely static and staring at this eye. It almost made you believe it was staring back at you and it made HAL this menace.”
Although he deliberately framed the shot that way on set, Esmail says that it wasn’t until he got into the editing room that the deeper implications of the image were driven home in his mind. “I realized that we’d been breaking the fourth wall all season by having Elliot talk to his imaginary friend [via the narration]. And that shot of the camera has the effect of making us the imaginary friend that Elliot’s referring to that’s witnessing the carnage,” he says. “There was something about that that resonated with me. Using that imagery [from 2001], but having it say something completely different about the fourth wall in our show.”
That scene, of course, was filmed well before the real-life tragedy that befell two Virginia reporters on Aug. 26. In the wake of their murder, USA delayed the finale — originally scheduled to air that night — by a week, a choice that Esmail says he completely supports. “I hope people can watch the whole episode, and it’s not too insensitive or associated with the tragedy that happened.”
Elliot Gets a Black Eye (Fight Club)
The debate over whether Christian Slater’s Mr. Robot persona was Elliot’s version of Tyler Durden — the swaggering alter ego of the unnamed Narrator in David Fincher’s beloved 1999 headtrip Fight Club — raged all season long in forums ranging from The A.V. Club to Reddit. And Esmail made the conscious choice to wait until the finale to answer it. Previous episodes disclosed that Mr. Robot is the spitting image of Elliot’s father, who died years before. But in this last installment, the younger man figures out that he has the power to summon his ghostly guardian. Mr. Robot then turns around and schools Elliot, confirming that they are one and the same in the most painful way possible: picking a fight with a coffee shop patron and then letting Elliot take the punch.
“That was a deliberate thing,” Esmail explains. “I wanted there to be a feeling of an out of body experience. We’re realizing along with Elliot that he’s having this mental break and facing his own demons and alter ego in the form of Mr. Robot. Researching associative identity disorder, we tried to map out what that might look and feel like.”
And if Mr. Robot telling Elliot, “I am you,” happens to put you in mind of the famous Fight Club line, “We have just lost cabin pressure” (uttered just as the Narrator realizes that he is Tyler and Tyler is him), that’s also 100 percent deliberate. “The interesting thing about the Tyler/Narrator split-personality thing is, here is a guy fighting with himself. The idea of Elliot wrestling with his demons is a parallel you could draw to Fight Club. And that movie’s themes of anti-consumerism and corporate anarchy also obviously resonated with me.”
Elliot’s Times Square Freak Out (Vanilla Sky)
As the Crossroads of the World in the City that Never Sleeps, Times Square is invariably a hotbed of activity 24/7, 365. But on a chilly November morning in the year 2000, the place was absolutely deserted save for one person: Tom Cruise. In an unprecedented move, the city agreed to close off one of its busiest neighborhoods so that Cruise and Cameron Crowe could film a key sequence for their first collaboration since Jerry Maguire, Vanilla Sky — an English-language remake of the cult Spanish film Open Your Eyes. The film ultimately received mixed reviews, but that scene of Cruise running alone in Times Square impressed even the film’s harshest critics.
It remained stuck in Esmail’s memory as well, and he created his own version in the climatic moments of the finale, when Elliot confronts Mr. Robot amidst a crowd of fsociety supporters. Overwhelmed by the noise, and Mr. Robot’s lecturing, Elliot pleads, “I want to be alone. I need to be alone.” And, as if by magic, everyone disappears, leaving Elliot by himself in a sea of neon lights and electronic billboards. “Vanilla Sky was definitely a movie I thought of when we shot that scene. I love movies with weird conceptual plays on reality, and Vanilla Sky is one of them,” Esmail says. Despite being the creator of a hit series, Esmail isn’t yet a celebrity on the level of Cruise, so he wasn’t able to talk the New York City government into shutting down Times Square. Instead, the crew took advantage of a holiday weekend to catch the area at its (almost) emptiest. “We shot that scene late at night right before the 4th of July weekend,” he reveals. “Basically, everyone had already gone on vacation, so it timed out nicely.”
In addition to echoing Vanilla Sky, that sequence also references a closing shot of Mr. Robot’s pilot, when Elliot strode into Times Square and raised his arms triumphantly aloft. “We have a lot of set-ups and payoffs in the show. In the Times Square scene in the pilot, he’s so triumphant and surrounded by people and television screens showing the fruits of his labor. I don’t think we’ve seen Elliot happier than that. Then at the end, it’s the polar opposite: he wants to be alone, and he is. That’s his arc. We start off with a character who doesn’t want to be lonely and is desperate for connection, and now he wants to shut it down.”
That Post-Credits Bonus Scene (Eyes Wide Shut)
Here’s hoping you stuck around after Elliot opened his apartment door and the screen cut to black. Because after the credits rolled, Esmail slipped in a major tease for Season 2. In a lengthy sequence, Dark Army hacker White Rose (B.D. Wong) enters an enormous mansion, weaving his way through hallways populated by well-dressed members of America’s top one percent, and sits down opposite high-ranking Evil Corp suit Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer), indicating that the two have been in cahoots all along.
Meanwhile, outside the house, rioters are flooding the streets and stock markets are falling precipitously. “That’s basically a set-up to say to the audience, ‘Fsociety pales in comparison to what’s really going on.’ There’s a whole other layer on top of it that they’re not aware of. If you notice, the framing in that sequence is very centered, not off-kilter like we did with the rest of the show, because these are the people who are in control of the world,” Esmail says.
The notion that the super-rich inhabit their own universe, one distinctly removed from the rest of the planet, is borrowed from Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut, which features another one of Tom Cruise’s most memorable standalone sequences. In the movie, Cruise’s character comes into possession of a password — “Fidelio” — that grants him entrance to a lavish masked ball that doubles as an orgy, where stunning women service wealthy men. (Note: The clip below contains some moments that are NSFW.)
“You’re right to point to Eyes Wide Shut,” says Esmail. “Like in that movie, the wealthy in Mr. Robot exist in this different reality. Even the worst things that are happening in the outside world aren’t affecting them very much. They’re enjoying themselves while they figure out their next steps.”
Does this mean that Wong will be back on a regular basis next season to implement those next steps? “The opportunity to work with him is a pleasure,” Esmail says. “I’d be stupid not to use him again.” Maybe in an homage to Full Metal Jacket?
Mr. Robot returns in 2016 on USA.