Panic in the Year Zero: How “Mr. Robot” and “Fight Club” complement each other


An outsider who cynically views the material attachments of modern society and the misplaced ethos of cultures at large. A plan to destroy an economic institution as a way of setting free the masses from the yolk of corporations. The divergent personalities of a potential savior that is slowly bringing him closer to self destruction, all while commenting on the ludicrous notion of corporate “personhood.” Is this a description of David Fincher’s 1999 film “Fight Club” or the USA Network original series “Mr. Robot?” There are certain similarities between the two that are hard to ignore, whether it’s those narrative parallels, the camera framing which evokes Fincher’s work, or even the use of the same song; “Mr. Robot” is aware of its influences and pays homage to Fincher’s film in multiple ways. But that’s not to suggest that the TV show is a pale imitation or carbon copy of the raucous movie. Instead, the two are echoes across a divide of time where certain global events change perspectives and objectives of each story.

“Fight Club” (based on the book by Chuck Palahniuk) was made and takes place at the tail end of the ’90s. It sounds like a joke, but it’s important to remember that the film has a pre-9/11 mentality about it. The greatest crises facing people at that time (in the western world) were existential ones. The gravest concern was what was to be done about this spiritual ennui that was affecting a materialistic generation of lost boys stuck in the position of office drones and corporate errand runners. The chief element of Fincher’s film (and Palahniuk’s book) is an examination of masculinity in that time period, how misplaced aggression can lead to the charms of anarchic fascism in the face of a world taken over by Starbucks and IKEA.

But more important than the War on Terror, the film also takes place almost a decade before the great financial meltdown of 2008. While the terrorist strikes and wars that came out of them are of importance when looking at “Fight Club,” its climax is not against the state but against corporations. Ultimately, it is looking to bring down a way of life, not due to religious misunderstandings, but rather a different outlook that sees the debt climbing and the deck being stacked against the American people. It is not a real global concern, instead focusing solely on America and its financial institutions when Project Mayhem bombs the credit card companies and wipes out the debt. It is an angsty teenager’s act of rebellion (remember that all of the buildings are cleared of people before detonation) – one that thinks that by throwing a rock at a problem, it will solve all of the issues of that problem.

“Mr. Robot,” on the other hand, takes place in the shadow of the Great Recession. It too wears its angst on its sleeve about society’s fragile ego and dedication to ephemeral, material things. It also proselytizes about the problems plaguing society and the rule of corporate law over the land. But the difference is that “Mr. Robot” has lived through the wars and the economic collapses; the show still bears the scars and rage over the lies of a country and the falsehoods spewed out by a marketplace. The show, created by Sam Esmail, targets Evil Corp as a catch-all conglomerate to stand in for the likes of Comcast, Enron, GE, Chase, etc. that must pay for the sins of all those other institutions. But it also knows that these corporate monstrosities are hydras, where if you cut off its head, more will grow in its place. “Mr. Robot” has seen what happened when the financial institutions of the country were actually threatened, how the government responded and, even more damning, how those institutions behaved after that response.

It’s worse than business as usual because it’s done in such a cavalier manner that “Fight Club” simply could never have predicted. Faced with an actual extinction level event of banks and corporations, the government came in and propped them up in the vain hope that, in turn, these companies would mete out its own share of mercy and kindness to consumers and employees. As history has borne out, that was not the case. “Fight Club” ended on the promise that if a severe blow was landed with a financial institution, then society would be free from the yolk of corporate tyranny and life could have meaning again. Or was that just more of the misinformation that populates the film?

Many people have misinterpreted Fincher’s movie as something to champion, a way of life to aspire to, instead of missing the clear satirical elements of mocking these outgrowths of hate and anger. Fincher’s film takes great pains to make sure that the joke lands that these people who feel like they have no identity or value willingly give up whatever identity they have to be a cog in a different machine. So perhaps this last act of the film, this moment of sabotage, is actual the last joke of the film, and the filmmakers know how futile this explosive gesture truly is. At the moment, there’s no real way of knowing, although if anyone sits down with Fincher, ask him about it please.

“Mr. Robot” takes a lot of the same aesthetics and ethos of “Fight Club” but transports it to a post-9/11, post-economic meltdown world. And it is a world, not just one country or state, that is impacted by the actions of Elliot and others in “Mr. Robot.” The show knows its debt to the Fincher film, that’s why it so nakedly apes the look and sound, even using a cover of The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” during a crucial scene where Elliot’s split personality is laid bare. It’s a smart enough show that it knows viewers have already jumped ahead of them, and that they recognize this twist (and this subject matter) from another form of entertainment.

In the end, the two pieces of creative work are mirror images of each other, but the glass is darkened by the passing of time. “Fight Club” existed in a mostly pre-digital world (still buying things through catalogues instead of Amazon), in an isolated country unaffected by or uninterested in the goings on of other nations. When those two changes hit society, when globalization took over and everything became networked through financial and technological ways, the game changed. But the anger remains. Now, though, it has a more concrete idea of what the rules of this new game are, who the players are, and how to affect the outcome. Time eroded the false facade of complacency that existed in the ’90s, and laid bare what would actually happen in the wake of catastrophic events. And, in both cases, it’s enough to make a man lose his mind.


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