The Fear Index review: A psychological thriller with a dash of AI

When a wealthy technology entrepreneur invents an AI-driven system capable of predicting how human fear affects the world’s financial markets, nothing turns out quite as he planned

Humans 9 February 2022

Dr Alex Hoffman is launching VIXAL-4 to investors - an AI-driven system that exploits fear in the financial markets and operates at lightning speed to make big returns. The promise is billions, the rich are ready to get richer... but this is not the day Alex and Hugo had planned. What follows is a high-octane journey through the worst 24 hours of Alex???s life - cutting across reality, memory and paranoid fantasy, forcing him to question everything he sees with his own eyes. In the pulse of Geneva???s financial district, Alex???s sanity is shaken after he is viciously attacked at his home by a man who knows all of his security codes. After more unexplained occurrences, Alex becomes convinced he???s being framed. But as secrets surface from his past, will anyone believe that he isn???t just losing his mind? Detective Leclerc (Montel), assigned to Alex???s case, struggles to work this former CERN scientist out. Hoffman???s talented artist wife, Gabby (Farzad) might just be losing patience this time, whilst Hugo???s only concern is the billion-dollar business on the line. Invention can be lonely, and in a modern world of AI, capitalism and technological breakthroughs, Dr Alex Hoffman is about to learn the hard way how destructive his creation might be???

Alex Hoffman (Josh Hartnett) creates an AI-based system to monetise fear in The Fear Index

Sky

The Fear Index

David Caffrey

Sky Atlantic/NOW TV

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IN RECENT years, big corporations have made it their business to keep a close eye on developments in artificial intelligence. From predicting trends in markets to planning risk-mitigation strategies, companies are constantly on the lookout for new ways to capitalise on AI to stay ahead of the game.

The Fear Index, a four-part psychological thriller based on Robert Harris’s 2011 bestselling novel of the same name, explores the ethical and moral issues wrapped up in applying AI to business, and asks some pertinent questions about the morality of using scientific advances for the sole purpose of making money.

Josh Hartnett (Pearl Harbor, The Black Dahlia) stars as Alex Hoffman, a wealthy technology entrepreneur who invents an AI-driven system capable of predicting how human fear affects behaviour and how that, in turn, affects fluctuations of the world’s financial markets. This knowledge promises not only power, but also considerable returns for Alex’s multibillionaire clients.

Directed by David Caffrey (Peaky Blinders, The Alienist), the series also stars Line of Duty alum Arsher Ali as Alex’s best friend and business partner Hugo, alongside Leila Farzad (I Hate Suzie) as Alex’s wife Gabby.

The action covers an intense 24-hour period in which Alex, a former scientist at the CERN particle physics laboratory, prepares to launch his morally questionable money-spinner. “Humans act in very predictable ways when they are frightened,” he assures his wealthy investors.

Yet, having promised billions in profit to his already rich clients, Alex’s plans are thrown into chaos when he is attacked by an unknown assailant at the home he shares with Gabby the night before the launch, leaving him disoriented and confused.

The next day, acting increasingly erratically and struggling to keep on top of things, Alex and Hugo don’t quite get the launch day they had in mind. It doesn’t help that an unexpected tragedy prompts some of their employees to start to question the morality of the whole endeavour.

Meanwhile, Alex becomes convinced that mysterious forces are conspiring to frame him for a series of acts he has no memory of having carried out. Questioned by the police and deserted by his wife, Alex finds himself in free fall, no longer sure what is real and what is happening only in the darkest corners of his imagination.

The Fear Index takes us not only into the mind of a man in a mental health crisis, but also provides a glimpse into a world where billions are made and spent in seconds, and where whole economies can be derailed by the timely use of a mathematical equation.

Caffrey adds a faint air of sci-fi and mystery to the proceedings, and ultimately delivers a gripping and robust thriller in which nothing is quite what it seems. A series of red herrings are peppered throughout the story to keep viewers on their toes. These add a note of suspense to the narrative but, to my mind, the series works best when viewed as a psychological drama about a man struggling to cope with psychosis as his life falls apart.

Although clearly made with fans of Line of Duty – the BBC’s long-running cop show – in mind, The Fear Index sadly lacks its punchiness and accessibility. With a screenplay filled with overly melodramatic exchanges and jarring technical jargon, the series often feels confusing and needlessly meandering. Still, Hartnett delivers a phenomenal turn and is the best thing about this flawed, yet highly watchable, mystery.

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