How Sam Esmail’s Comet Foreshadows Mr. Robot

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L-R: Rami Malek in Mr. Robot, Emmy Rossum and Justin Long in Comet. Photo: NBC, IFC Films

The movie Comet, like the meteorological phenomenon after which it’s named, came and went in a flash. After opening in just eight theaters on December 5, 2014, it was gone by Christmas Day of that year, earning a meager total of $8,623, according to Box Office Mojo. From the outlets that took notice, it received mixed reviews, though there were some bright spots, including a mostly complimentary assessment from the New York Times. “This flash of filmmaking is structured in an inventively cut, deconstructed time that confronts the nature of chance,” wrote critic David DeWitt. “As the characters wonder, maybe it’s all a dream.”

Comet was written and directed by Sam Esmail, whose next project, USA’s Mr. Robot, would debut a little more than six months after Comet streaked in and out of movie houses. As most people are well aware, that hacktivism thriller became one of the buzziest, most lauded shows of 2015 and will likely be nominated for multiple Emmy Awards this week, the same week its equally promising second season premieres. All of that makes this an apt moment to revisit Comet — which is streaming on Netflix — and consider how its sensibility dovetails with the uneasy, surreal vibe of Mr. Robot. It may be easy to say this now, in 20/20, Rami Malek–infused hindsight, but in many ways, Comet establishes a partial blueprint for what would become the extremely complicated, multilevel structure that is Mr. Robot.

Comet, which was shot in the summer of 2013, has a very different feel from Mr. Robot in that it’s much less plot-driven and a lot more romantic than Esmail’s fsociety mind-blower. The film almost plays like a darker version of (500) Days of Summer, or, more aptly, a less relaxed Richard Linklater movie. Over its 91-minute running time, Comet hopscotches between multiple key moments in a six-year love affair between Dell (Justin Long) and Kimberly (Emmy Rossum). The way it’s structured, with scenes that fritz out and blur into moments from either the future or past, allows it to unfold like one long conversation. Or to put it another way: Watching Comet feels like watching one couple’s 9o-minute-long fight.

Okay, so Dell and Kimberly don’t argue the entire time. But a lot of their banter, even during their not-quite-meet-cute while waiting in line to watch a meteor shower at L.A.’s Hollywood Cemetery, is rooted in conflict and aggressive back-and-forth volleys. Long and Rossum (who would go on to become Esmail’s fiancée in real life) are clearly comfortable with the material and the director, who, even in his first film, demonstrates an ability to guide his actors toward the subtle. Both of the stars deliver thoroughly natural performances, demonstrating an ease with navigating the shifts that take them from rapid-fire exchanges to prolonged silences.

What ultimately undoes the movie is its naked desire to say something deep and meaningful about deep and meaningful things. Because of its jagged, non-linear narrative structure, Comet never provides enough context to make the audience invest in the Dell/Kimberly relationship or its philosophical insights.

A jagged, nonlinear haziness is certainly present in Mr. Robot, too, but, unlike in Comet, the sense of uncertainty is one of the things that draws us closer instead of pushing us away. Mr. Robot has so many more facets and characters that its vagueness is able to exist without being a liability the way it is in a film so laser-focused on just two people and how they behave in each other’s orbit. The series immediately presents us with such a clear question — “Will Elliot join fsociety and wipe away all debt, plunging the world into economic mayhem?” — that its murkier subquestion — “Is Elliot accurately representing the reality he’s living in?” — can more easily coexist within the story.

Those who choose to watch this movie while simultaneously making their way through season one of Mr. Robot could easily figure out what’s going in the Elliot/Mr. Robot relationship simply by looking to Comet for clues. Both of these Esmail projects embrace the notion of things not being what they seem — “If none of this is really happening, this could still be a dream,” Kimberly says at one point — but Mr. Robot takes the idea to a more plot-twisty extreme by introducing a character who initially seems to be one thing, then turns out to be another. On more than one occasion in Comet, Dell references the big reveal in the movie The Sixth Sense, hinting that Esmail’s development of Christian Slater’s Mr. Robot may have been just as much influenced by M. Night Shyamalan as the more common Fight Club comparison that's thrown around.

Like Elliot, Dell also has a complicated relationship with a parent. There’s no consistent voice-over narration in Comet, but Dell does have a tendency to talk to himself. He actually has a lot in common with Elliot; he’s not a hacker and he doesn’t appear to be doing serious drugs, other than smoking the occasional joint. But he is seeing a therapist, cynical about other people and the culture in general, and willing to break the law for what he perceives as the greater good. Dell and Elliot are not the same character, but you feel like they would be friends, if either of them were the kinds of people who easily made friends. 

Visually, Comet and Mr. Robot overlap quite a bit as well. In Comet, Esmail frames images with meticulousness and intent in the same way that he and his fellow directors did in Mr. Robot’s first season and that Esmail seems poised to continue in season two. (This season, all of the episodes are directed by Esmail.) On Mr. Robot, as this video essay illustrates, characters are often pushed to the edges and corners of the frame, a technique Esmail first put to work in Comet, where Dell and Kimberly often appear at the bottom of the screen, as if they’re overwhelmed by the spaces they occupy.

They also share a similar fascination with chaos. Comet is about one man’s life blowing up due to his personal decisions; Mr. Robot is about a man who decides to effectively blow up the economic power grid, affecting the lives of millions of others. In both narratives, it often feels like things are spinning out of control. “I feel like I’m in the wrong world,” Dell says near the end of Comet. It’s a remark fraught with as much confusion and disappointment as Elliot’s observation that, “We’re all living in each other’s paranoia.”

Comet may not be as compelling as Mr. Robot is, but creatively, I’m not sure Esmail could have made Mr. Robot if he hadn’t made that movie first. The film is a separate entity. But watching it now, it’s very easy to see how elements of Mr. Robot are right there, living in its world, just waiting to emerge and be recruited into another screwed-up, stunningly askew universe of their own.