2 out of 5 stars

Josh Hartnett isn’t a terrible actor, but he’s perhaps not one with the subtlety necessary to portray a brilliant and accomplished man’s near-total breakdown over the course of a single day, so his scenery-chewing performance in the lead role of The Fear Index never convinces.

We’re supposed to believe that his character, Alex Hoffmann, an American billionaire running a phenomenally successful hedge fund in Switzerland, is deteriorating emotionally (with old mental health issues perhaps recurring) as the stress of inexplicable events takes its toll. But Hartnett becomes too deranged far too soon, and it’s difficult to take him seriously as a genius—especially when the villain of the piece, an A.I called ‘VIXAL’ (which Alex has created to predict how human fear will affect the stock market), is patently obvious to the viewer from early on yet apparently not even guessed-at by anyone in the cast. 

“In all the years I’ve thought about how it could work, I never really considered what would happen if it did,” Alex says near the end. And, indeed, the danger potentially posed by rogue A.I is the point of Robert Harris’s source novel, to which the series adheres closely. (In case we haven’t noticed what’s happening, the company installing high-speed cable outside Alex’s corporate headquarters has vans emblazoned with Initium Vitae—“the beginning of life”.)

Strange things start happening to Alex and his artist wife Gabby (Leila Farzad) from the beginning, when Alex unexpectedly receives a long-coveted Darwin First Edition in the post. He doesn’t know who it’s from; the dealer insists that he ordered it, but Alex has no recollection of this.  Later that night, he’s attacked at home by an intruder. Inexplicable incidents begin to pile up. Vixal makes a fortune by selling stock in an airline moments before one of its planes is blown up (an attack signalled with immense clunkiness as the camera carefully follows a suitcase from the check-in to the hold). A mysterious buyer purchases many of Gabby’s works at her exhibition. Alex encounters his nighttime assailant again. And so on.

On the plus side, individually many of these incidents work well enough, with an effective sense of unease. There’s a handful of genuine surprises, and a sequence of scenes where the distraught Alex fails to show up for an important lunch with a group of irritated investors have their own believable tension too. The Fear Index also succeeds early on in establishing enough unanswered questions (the Darwin, the intruder, the results of a CAT scan, the reasons for Alex’s sacking from CERN, and so on), that at least for a while there’s something to hook the viewer.

But in a series that pays only lip service to the more cerebral elements of Harris’s thriller, and sometimes veers closer to 24 territory, there are fatal narrative problems that become more and more apparent as it continues. Most importantly, quite apart from Hartnett’s over-acting and the equally overwrought score by Neil Davidge in the background, it’s simply not credible that Alex would fail to recognise that Vixal is starting to take unexpected and dangerous initiatives. Nor is it believable that a man in such a state would be so wily at avoiding capture once he’s on the run.

The A.I’s own motivations remain opaque, too (although to be fair perhaps they would?) It’s never satisfactorily explained why Vixal, on a mission to maximise profit at all costs, would bother to do some of the things it does. Its attempt to kill one character is absurdly baroque, for example, especially when it demonstrates in another scene that it can achieve the same thing much more efficiently.

And at the same time, troublingly for a series purporting to make serious points about technology, there are some painful howlers—notably the notion that destroying the server hardware would put a permanent end to the software running on it. (Most rogue A.I’s of my acquaintance copy themselves to the cloud early on in their humanity-destroying careers.)

Hartnett apart, there are some decent performances here, notably from the two most important female characters: Farzad’s Gabby, committed to her husband but growing angry at his erratic behaviour too, and Aïssa Maïga as Marieme, the Chief Risk Officer at Alex’s firm. She represents the responsible face of business, in contrast to the avaricious CEO Hugo, played by Arsher Ali as something of a moustache-twirling baddie. Grégory Montel is well-rounded as a police detective investigating the assault on Alex; rather like Marieme he stands for human values, and seems perplexed by the world of billionaires, though perhaps a little resentful as well.

Harris’s work hasn’t been served well on the screen so far this year, and though not everything in The Fear Index is as misjudged as Hartnett’s performance, in its entirety the series is an even bigger dud than Munich: The Edge of War (2022). Certainly, the plan floated more than a decade ago for Paul Greengrass to direct Harris’s own screenplay might well have resulted in a fine and topical thriller (Vixal is, it’s at least implied, responsible for the 7th May 2010 “flash crash” on the financial markets). Harris himself, after all, has an impressive screen record through his two collaborations with Roman Polanski, The Ghost Writer in 2010 and J’Accuse in 2019.

Unfortunately, while The Fear Index is faithful to Harris’s work in plot terms, it’s not nearly as intelligent as the novel. The idea of an A.I that turns our emotions against us is certainly intriguing, and the question of how much autonomy A.I’s should be allowed is becoming an urgent one. But while The Fear Index has the raw material to explore all this, what we get instead is a lacklustre and rather literal-minded entry in the decent-man-battles-sinister-conspiracy genre, distinctive only for starring a grimly agonised Josh Hartnett rather than a grimly agonised Liam Neeson.


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Cast & Crew

writers: Caroline Bartleet, Paul Andrew Williams & Matthew Billingsly (based on the novel by Robert Harris).
director: David Caffrey.
Josh Hartnett, Arsher Ali, Leila Farzad, Grégory Montel & Aïssa Maïga.