Some movies wear their influences on their sleeves. John Wick owes a great debt to Le Samourai and the pantheon of 80’s action movies. We wouldn’t have Inception without The Matrix, or Okja without E.T. Every great movie, whether its influences are obvious or subtle, builds on what’s been done before and hopefully finds something fresh along the way. Then there are movies like Mad Genius, which is such a blatant ripoff of one specific thing that I’m not sure how it’s legal, or how actors with actual agents allowed them to be involved.
See if this sounds familiar. Mason (Chris Mason) is a socially awkward computer hacker who is obsessed with “changing the world” by…ending war and poverty…or something. He wears a mask and has a popular vlog channel for his antics. He’s part of an underground of cool, drug-addled nerds who create programs to destroy banks or whatever in between their massive heroin binges. But the twist, you see, is that Mason has a rebellious friend named Finn (Scott Mechlowicz) who lives…inside his head. Finn is Mason’s alternate personality, and he appears in hallucinations to berate him and convince him to break the rules and have drug-soaked sex with the women at the computer nerd loft.
“…part of an underground of cool, drug-addled nerds who create programs to destroy banks or whatever in between their heroin binges.”
It’s such a beat-for-beat copy of the USA show Mr. Robot that within the first five minutes, I felt like Scottie at the end of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. I wanted to scream at my laptop, “He made you over, didn’t he!? Not only the clothes and the hair but the looks and the manner and the words!” But that would have scared my neighbors, so I held back.
Not only are the narrative basics of Mr. Robot copied and pasted; many of that far superior show’s stylistic quirks come along for the ride too. The fourth-wall-breaking narration and direct addresses to the camera. The visual overlays of “computer stuff.” The moody electronic soundtrack. The haphazard jump cuts and disorienting effects to represent drug trips and mental instability. The bizarre, pseudo-philosophical proclamations: “Do you want to save the world? Boom, boom, boom, boom.” “Free will is a deficiency!” “Society is just an agreement. Money, just an agreement. This place is about creating your own agreement.” It was shocking to see Mr. Robot’s whole idiosyncratic package lifted so comprehensively. Eventually, Mad Genius doesn’t feel like a lazy ripoff of Mr. Robot, but like a film made by someone who has literally never watched anything other than Mr. Robot.
The only fun to be had during the act of supreme theft that is Mad Genius is keeping track of where it diverges from its unwitting source material. Instead of Christian Slater as the creepy, conniving Mr. Robot, we have Scott Mechlowicz as Finn, who in his sweaty sleeveless T-shirts, useless suspenders, and fingerless gloves looks like he just stepped out of an all-night Leipzig techno party at 6 a.m. At one point he chews gum with a cigarette in his mouth. Who does that?
“Bringing back the looks of early-90’s cyberpunk in 2018 is cool. Unlike stealing from a show that’s three years old…”
He’s indicative of the few things Mad Genius doesn’t take from Mr. Robot. Where the show’s desaturated, bleak cinematography infuses every setting with dread and paranoia, Mad Genius is colorful, especially in the interiors. Where the show has zeitgeisty ambitions to reflect the tone and texture of post-Occupy America, Mad Genius invents its own world of goofy retro-hacker madness. The costume design is the one thing I love about it: the brightly colored mohawks, leather jackets, nose rings, and glowsticks brought me back to cyberpunk classics like Johnny Mnemonic and Strange Days. The secondary characters have names to match their hilarious wardrobes: Eden, Sun Moon, Zip, Angel.
You could say that all sounds cliché and outdated, and you’d be right, but that’s why it’s awesome. It’s the only silver lining of inspiration in this dead husk of a movie. Bringing back the looks of early-90’s cyberpunk in 2018 is cool. Unlike stealing from a show that’s three years old.
Mad Genius (2018) Written and directed by Royce Gorsuch. Starring Chris Mason, Scott Mechlowicz, Spencer Locke, Faran Tahir.
4 out of 10 robotic monsieurs