Inverse Recommends

4 Years Later, a Propulsive Tech Thriller Just Got a Surprising Second Life

Artificial intelligence is an unstoppable force in Veena Sud’s The Stranger.

Originally Published: 
Maika Monroe in The Stranger
Inverse Recommends

We are never truly alone. There’s always something watching us, tracking us, and feeding our habits into an imperceptible algorithm. Artificial intelligence basically knows our every move — and whoever can weaponize it can effectively control our lives.

The idea of perpetual surveillance was once just a cautionary tale; the subject of speculative science fiction. In the past few decades, that idea is creeping closer to reality. And it’s made older, tech-centric thrillers, like Hulu’s The Stranger, eerily prescient in hindsight.

Directed by Veena Sud (Seven Seconds, The Killing), The Stranger is a cat-and-mouse thriller that unfolds across one night in Los Angeles. Scream queen Maika Monroe stars as Clare, a rideshare driver who’s brand-new to the city. But when she picks up Carl E. (Dane DeHaan), a well-off (if awkward) tech savant en route to LAX, she finds herself in a twisted experiment that forces her to rely on her wits to survive the night. Carl, you see, is a sociopath that has potentially been stalking Clare for months, using the very things Clare can’t do without — her smartphone, her car, and even her adorable pup, Pebbles — as weapons against her. It’s an innovative paranoid-tech thriller that originally premiered on a platform that had appeared to be just as innovative: Quibi.

The Stranger was conceived as one of many stories that first dropped as a 13-part saga on Quibi. (Remember Quibi?) Though its host platform wasn’t long for this world, closing its doors after just seven months, its best ideas managed to survive. It helps that Quibi founder Jeffrey Katzenberg gave creators the copyrights to their own work: that’s the very thing that allowed The Stranger to find new life in the form of a traditional 90-minute movie.

“The math made sense if there were nine episodes or 10 episodes, [it could] become a feature,” Sud tells Inverse. Sud was all-in on Quibi’s unorthodox format — a series of vertical shorts, each spanning 10 minutes, and each ending on a cliffhanger of sorts — and used that to inform the restructuring. “What that allowed me to do is to create a very natural rhythm in the story,” which she later tweaked with editor Phil Fowler.

Their retroactive edit is virtually imperceptible now, so much so that The Stranger feels destined to be a feature-length film, even if Sud didn’t originally envision it as such. Per the director, it all started as “a tiny germ of an idea” in 2017. “There is this incredible organization that brings scientists to talk to Hollywood writers,” Sud says. That year Sud heard from AI creators that laid out the inherent risks of all-seeing tech.

“Many things were happening at the time, including Cambridge Analytica,” Sud adds, citing the data breach that affected over 80 million Facebook users in 2018. “The AI developer who was part of understanding what happened in that situation was very clear that we’ve got to have regulations around AI.”

Even five years ago, algorithms were growing sophisticated enough to predict entire chains of behavior: “If you were a recovering alcoholic, they could predict whether or not you would relapse — based simply on your Facebook page.” Patterns of recognition have only become easier to predict in the intervening years. It’s why, in The Stranger, Carl manages to track Clare no matter where she goes. “Whoever can figure out how all of us are going to act in the future is going to run the world,” Sud says, paraphrasing one of Carl’s chilling monologues. “It’s a version of Minority Report, projecting future cases.”

Dane DeHaan makes for a terrifying stalker in The Stranger.


As meaty a subject that is on its own, The Stranger is concerned with a bit more than just the perils of AI. Avan Jogia co-stars as JJ, a gas station clerk that ends up caught in Carl’s web alongside Clare. Their quest to outsmart (or at the very least, outrun) their stalker sends them on an odyssey across LA’s grimy underbelly. Together they confront obstacles just as threatening as Carl, like police brutality, sexism, and even wild coyotes.

The idea of racial tension is an especially crucial theme for Sud, who’s explored issues of police violence in a number of projects. “I think it’s been on my mind, and thankfully to some degree on the nation’s mind, since George Floyd,” the filmmaker says. “We have a paramilitary force assassinating our citizens. Like, what the f*ck is going on?”

Sud loves to write a good detective story, but she takes care to ground each “in the reality of good and evil.” Just as technology has the power to help or harm in The Stranger, so too can the police force. That also adds a layer of conflict between Clare — a white Final Girl that has little reason to distrust the cops — and JJ, a brown Muslim man that finds himself painted as the villain more often than not.

Avan Jogia’s gas station clerk ends up forced to play Carl’s sick games alongs Clare in The Stranger.


The Stranger takes cues from Strange Days, Cat Person, and even Minority Report, molding the City of Dreams into an after-dark nightmare. That said, despite a propensity for occasionally dipping into the clichés of its chosen genre, The Stranger is a surprisingly propulsive thriller. Its episodic structure prevents the adventure from growing stagnant: it’s light on its feet, and never overstays its welcome — likely a result of its unorthodox origins as a series.

But despite originally coming and going four years ago, thanks to the short life of its original platform, The Stranger is perhaps more timely now than it was when it first premiered. It may not have been meant for Quibi, but it wasted little time in finding a second home.

The Stranger is streaming on Hulu now.

This article was originally published on

Related Tags