Episode 5 is a bit of a departure for the current series of Black Mirror and feels more like a standalone short movie. Within minutes of the opening, we’ve settled into the beautiful black-and-white world and forgotten about all that superfluous colour. The choice of monochrome harks back to post-war British sci-fi cinema and the likes of Quatermass. It may have been intended to accentuate the bleak, post-apocalyptic atmosphere, though for me is one of the plusses that kept me engrossed. The story and dialogue are honed down to a bare minimum, so the art direction and visual design become central to its appeal. “Metalhead” is a sleek and sharp piece of narrative that works perfectly on one level, though falls short on many others…
The premise is swiftly set-up with a brief three-way exchange of dialogue in a battered car that introduces Bella (Maxine Peake), Anthony (Clint Dyer) and Clark (Jake Davies). Apart from Bella liking mint humbugs, and referencing George Orwell’s Animal Farm, we really don’t get a lot of reasons to root for her or any of the trio, which is okay as we’re about to lose two thirds of the cast in the opening 10 minutes. I must admit, the early scenes were completely gripping. I didn’t even touch my cup of tea, but did pause at 12-minutes to reheat it in the microwave… isn’t modern technology great? Well, actually, “Metalhead” is a cautionary tale with the opposite message.
The trio run into serious doggy-doo-doo when burglarising a big warehouse to steal a vital item, seemingly on an errand of mercy for a dying child. As Anthony moves a big box containing supplies, he disturbs a dormant robot ‘guard-dog’ that fires some sort of grenade, peppering him and the nearby Bella with what appears to be shrapnel before efficiently dispatching Anthony.
And so begins an adrenalin-charged pursuit in which Clark soon falls victim to the computerised canine drone that can outrun a van with ease, just like one of James Cameron’s Terminators… Bella narrowly escapes by trapping the dog in a car that then tumbles off a cliff. By now, we realise that this alone won’t be enough to deter the canine, though we learn that it has been significantly damaged, which may give our heroine a slim chance of escape.
From then on, we’re treated to an overt tribute to Richard Stanley’s Hardware (1990), but with a budget that’s likely twice the size of that cyberpunk classic. Director David Slade (Hannibal, American Gods), obviously did his Media Studies homework and “Metalhead” is an exemplary lesson in all the tropes of the pursuit genre and ticks all the boxes for dystopian future fiction… if this was on his graduate showreel, he would be certain to go far! Possibly because of its curtailed duration, at just over 40-minutes, “Metalhead” has that fresh-from-film-school vibe. It also reads like an indie one-shot comic served as its storyboard. This youthful exuberance is not a bad thing, but it does give the episode very familiar film festival feel.
It’s a good exercise in visual storytelling and physical acting, because Bella’s dialogue is pretty much limited to various ways of saying “oh dear”, but with plenty of expletives—we all know how much Charlie Brooker loves his expletives. This is a great shame, because Brooker’s a dab-hand at sharp-witted cynicism and satire, and I’d hoped for a more intelligent script. Apparently, it was the director who urged him to peel back much of the content and drop a secondary subplot.
Maxine Peake makes the most of what she has to work with and does a great job acting like nobody’s watching. She manages to wring every once of emotion from what could’ve been a very sterile story, though the part was not all that demanding for an actress of her calibre. Those rugged Scottish moors look darn chilly, though, so the physical demands may well have been a challenge, and one she rose to admirably. Most of her performance relies on tight close-ups of her face, or expressive posture and movement in full body framing, almost a mime. Her interaction with the camera is inventive and dynamic throughout and gives this episode its backbone.
One potential flaw that runs through the whole thing is the A.I pursuit robots themselves. They are referred to as “dogs” by the characters and their form and movements are clearly based on canines. If you’re a dog-lover, it is difficult to avoid anthropomorphising them (or should that be cynopomorphising?) and when the chief pursuit hound gets damaged and continues with just three functional limbs, it becomes almost endearing.
Their sleek single-mindedness is also quite seductive, both scary and admirable—akin to the beauty of sharks. They’re steadfastly faithful to their programmed purpose and just won’t stop following the digital scent of their quarry (that shrapnel from the initial grenade was a payload of tiny tracking tags).
It’s almost certainly intentional that they resemble Sony’s Aibo robot dogs, one of the first interactive A.I toys, though in this case a decapitated version. There’s a nice piece of visual humour when Bella seeks refuge up a tree and the dog sits patiently waiting, like a pleased pooch that has corralled a squirrel. Who will tire first? Will the robot’s power cell run-down before Bella, literally, drops off?
The climax plays out in an isolated house of brutalist architecture and lavish interior décor. Bella seeks temporary refuge and takes time to treat her collected injuries. She soon discovers the home’s occupants are still there, if only in body. Venturing upstairs, she does some fine nose-acting, worthy of a perfume ad, only for a scent no one would buy! In a bedroom are the rotting corpses of a couple who had obviously died in a suicide pact when confronted with the collapse of society around them, presumably triggered by the dogs and other rogue A.I weaponry, that’s run amok. Here lies the subtext and social commentary of “Metalhead”.
It seems to be an exploration of the ways we may measure and value human life. Bella bravely enters a dangerous zone in order to track something down for her terminally ill child—whatever that thing may be, remains in that big box at the warehouse. She’s risked her own life for another who has limited time to live—the power of a mother’s love being the central motif. Conversely, the inhabitants of this fancy house, with all its mod-cons and trappings of material success, could not bear one more day of terror—seeing all they had accrued fall apart around them was just too much to take, so they chose to end their own lives.
Is this a metaphor, maybe, for the human race as a whole? Having tipped the world into a downward ecological spiral with our industrial-technological way of life—are we prepared to sacrifice any of our mod-cons to favour the future? Or, are we happy to commit suicide in a vain attempt to hang on to the last vestiges of our hard-earned materialism? Do we just give up, or do we continue to try?
There is also the gothic theme, first explored in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: as science advances, are we prepared to debate the ethics of any possible consequence, and take responsibility for our own creations? Or will the monsters we make come back with a vengeance? A pertinent question as US police forces begin introducing A.I robots that can independently decide to use lethal force in terrorist siege situations. The first step away from the wisdom of Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics:
“A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.”
“Metalhead” is simple and effective, but it’s nothing new and it adds little to the debate that was not already thrown up three decades ago by the likes of The Terminator (1984), Robocop (1987), Hardware, and repeatedly revisited in Doctor Who.
Dystopia has been around as long as the science fiction genre, though seems to be on the rise with popular shows like HBO’s The Leftovers and, of course, the Hunger Games franchise. This pessimistic trend is what brought several high-profile sci-fi authors together a few years back with Project Hieroglyph, a kind of anti-dystopian (so, utopian?) coalition led by the likes of Neal Stephenson and Bruce Sterling. They reasoned that if we want a bright future, perhaps we should start being creative and produce a desirable model to aspire to, rather than simply pointing out potential problems, whilst avoiding offering up any solutions.
Black Mirror is supposed to reflect the darkest side of our society (the clue’s in the title) and it does a respectable service, but repeatedly pointing out how ugly someone is, generally does little to increase their self-esteem and encourage positive development. Anyone who has trained a dog will attest to this. So, if we want our robot dogs to be more like Doctor Who’s K9 and less like the deadly dogs of “Metalhead”, perhaps we have to teach our tech some new tricks and offer difficult praise as often as easy criticism.
… and what was in the box? That reveal is reserved until the very last shot.