Monday, January 8, 2018

"Black Mirror" Review - "Metalhead"

Spoilers for Black Mirror season four after the jump:

Much ado has been made of Black Mirror opening itself up to the narrative possibilities of joy following its move to Netflix. Following up on the (deserved) acclaim of last season's "San Junipero" and the startling power of its happy ending, two of season four's greatest installments see Charlie Brooker tackling the space opera and the rom-com with similarly exhilarating results. Heck, when you get right down to it, four of the six episodes this year end on notes that aren't complete downers. "Arkangel" is hardly triumphant but at least concludes with its protagonist alive (facing an uncertain future with her life finally her own), and while much of season closer "Black Museum" is a somewhat less successful riff on the "White Christmas" triptych structure, it's livened up significantly by its final scenes of nasty, satisfying vengeance. By contrast, the season's only truly dismal hour, "Crocodile," is Black Mirror bleakness almost as an act of self-parody; its story of a woman taking increasingly horrific steps to cover up her past features an escalation that feels just downright obligatory in its drab sense of brutality. It's one of the show's worst, most utterly by-the-numbers episodes ever, and it had me wondering if Black Mirror as gloom-and-doom had, as I know some have started to feel, perhaps run its course.

If you sense an notable "except" coming here, you'd be correct.

Except there's "Metalhead," an episode which is like a warm blanket for those of us who fell in love with Black Mirror over its immaculately built technology-infused nightmares, reminding us (just as "Hated in the Nation" did last year) that the show can certainly still deliver on that score while remaining fresh and distinctive. The episode is something new for the show every bit as much as "USS Callister" or "San Junipero" are—a gorgeous, vicious full-episode chase horror story of almost perfect information that, while it shares the stark desperation of something like "White Bear," offers no mid-episode upending of everything we thought we knew, nor any real attempt at social commentary. To be sure, those things worked in "White Bear," and they've worked in other Black Mirrors of varying tones. But "Metalhead" is the most bare-bones, elemental story the show has ever done. It has no twist, save for a final image that provides shattering context to the excursion that has doomed its main character. It has no meaning beyond "violent death likely awaits all who exist within its world, sooner or later." It doesn't even have a particularly novel concept. Instead it lays all its main cards out on the table within the first 10 minutes, after which it's just out to scare the living bejeezus out of us with its tale of a woman trying to evade the pursuit of a tireless robot "dog" hell-bent on killing her.

This it does incredibly well, whittling its initial cast of three down to just Bella (Maxine Peake) within that same initial 10 minutes, with her two companions Tony and Clarke gruesomely dispatched mere moments after the trio first encounter the dog while searching an abandoned warehouse. Their deaths happen with a speed that frankly recalls the first time the door opens and Leatherface swings that hammer in TCSM. (Lest I be accused of hyperbole, I'm not saying it's as good as that moment. But it's paced with the same ferocity.) One moment Bella and Tony are looking around, uneasy but not seemingly in mortal danger. Then Tony finds the box and lifts it up to reveal . . . what appears to be just a little metal box of no importance. Wrong. Tony's sudden look of blind panic and a screeching orchestra cue are all the time we have to prepare before the innocuous looking object springs into actions and launches a bunch of shrapnel-like tracking devices, some of which find their mark. He's dead a few moments later, and then Bella is on the run with Clarke in separate vehicles. Poor Clarke isn't fast enough to escape; we see the thing flat-out galloping behind him before it's on him too, jumping through the window and killing him in similarly graphic fashion—though filmed in black-and-white, "Metalhead" at times displays an approach to images of human viscera that is decidedly more modern—before nearly forcing Bella to drive off a cliff. It's a jarring, incredible opening, and the episode never quite matches it the rest of the way.

It comes awfully close, though. What follows across the remaining half-hour are several additional sequences of bravura suspense and one bit of gruesome self-surgery, coupled with some of the best looking photography of any Black Mirror episode to date. The pared-back nature of the script really lets David Slade and the rest of "Metalhead's" technical crew leave their stylistic imprint all over this one, and the resulting visual aesthetic manages to be both striking on its own while almost always ratcheting up the tension. There are the expected POV shots from the dog's perspective, and they're effective when utilized, but more often than not a mixture of aerial and low-to-the-ground camerawork is employed, as the camera moves either above or alongside the machine as it hunts. The aerial cinematography is particularly dread-inducing to me; once we've seen what the dog is capable of, watching it maneuver so straightforwardly and quickly in open space ups the terror quotient something fierce. Nor does Slade forget the human element here; there are also numerous shots of Bella that situate Peake's desperate, exhausted face within the frame to compelling effect. (She's tremendous, by the way, offering a performance that's convincing in its portrayal of physical weariness and perhaps even more so at conveying a sense of psychological wear and tear.)

In the end, of course, all of this adds up to nothing more or less than a straightforward, unrelieved one-way march into hell. Bella eventually defeats the robot but doesn't make it out alive, turning a knife on herself after being hit by more tracking devices. We then return to the warehouse to learn what she was seeking: a teddy bear to comfort a dying child, which he'll now never get. It's a devastating one-two punch, simultaneously affirming the humanity that still exists in this particular desaturated hellscape while cautioning that indulging it will only get you and your friends killed. Black Mirror, for all its frequent bleakness, is not a show I'd typically characterize as nihilistic, but "Metalhead" really is just straight-up nihilism. It being only a little over 40 minutes is key to its impact, I think, because had it gone on longer, the fact that it plays essentially one note the entire time (and offers nothing resembling catharsis of any kind) might well have worn thin. But as is, it plays that one note with a relentlessness and commitment to emotional affect that I for one found highly admirable. It's not necessarily an episode I plan on ever rewatching beyond the two times I've seen it, and it's not an easy episode to love. But in a season otherwise defined by a further broadening of the show's emotional palette, it's a nerve-shredding journey well worth undertaking. Indeed, I'd go so far as to rank it among Black Mirror's finest achievements period.

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