With Metalhead, it’s beginning to look like Charlie Brooker is trying to push the boundaries of what Black Mirror began as in this fourth season. It’s bleak, sure; it’s about tech, sure. But that’s about where the similarities to a standard Black Mirror ep (if there is such a thing) end. There’s little of Brooker’s usual misanthropy to be had, but that’s not to say it has a rosier outlook on humanity. It’s just that, for the most part, there’s only one person in it. And this one doesn’t show us the effect of tech on society, because society’s already over.
Yes, for the fifth ep of the new season, Brooker’s gone with a sparse, monochrome post-apocalypse thriller, with few of the questioning, thought-provoking issue raising we’ve become accustomed to. It’s a genre he’s obviously been fond of for a long time; witness his Big Brother / zombie apocalypse crossover Dead Set, from all the way back in 2005. Metalhead, though is devoid of gimmicks like a flesheating Davina McCall, straining for the sort of highbrow post-apocalypse tale embodied by the likes of The Road,
Small wonder John Hillcoat didn’t direct this one then, having helmed previous instalment Crocodile. Instead, this ep is helmed by David Slade, British director of the stylish 30 Days of Night and the… less stylish Twilight: Eclipse. Slade establishes the situation with admirable economy – empty countryside and a battered, dusty car full of desperate-looking survivors. You instantly know it’s after an apocalypse – you just don’t know what kind.
Well, the arty kind, at least, since Slade chose to direct this in black and white. It’s an interesting decision that adds to the chilly bleakness of the setting, but comes across as more than a little pretentious. It may have been Brooker’s decision rather than the director’s of course; he’s clearly aiming for the sort of apocalypse that strives for artistic respectability.
That may be a little unfair, but reports that he originally intended the piece to be utterly wordless do sort of back it up. Fortunately for Maxine Peake as Bella, she may not have anyone to talk to after the opening minutes, but the addition of a radio allows her to at least monologue to a mostly-unheard audience back at home base. And of course she also gets to shriek defiance at the archetypal robot killer baddies known as “dogs”.
As post-apocalyptic robot killers go, the “dogs” are pretty cool – though they actually look rather more like terrier-sized four-legged cockroaches. Apparently they are based on an actual robot design, so there’s your usual Black Mirror extrapolation of real tech. As to whether they’re responsible for the apocalypse or merely a symptom of it, the script leaves that aspect decidedly ambiguous.
So what we get is an hour of Bella attempting to evade and outwit the tireless robotic killer, which is a pretty tense, stripped down survivalist tale. Trouble is, no matter how well done it is, you can’t escape the fact that we’ve seen this before. Frequently. Sci-fi’s been doing post-apocalyptic killer robots for literally decades (if not longer), most notably with James Cameron’s Terminator series.
With that said, it passes the time effectively enough – although it’s worth noting that its slight story gives it by far the shortest run time of the season, at a brief 41 minutes. Peake makes a convincingly desperate survivor, and her battle of wits against her cybernetic opponent is exciting to watch. Oh, and if you want the trad Black Mirror bleakness, her choosing to die rather than risk leading the dogs back to home base should do it for you. Along with the revelation that the whole doomed mission had only been looking for a child’s teddy bear in the first place.
Gotta say, though, despite Charlie Brooker’s obvious fondness for this genre, this felt by far the slightest of the new sextet of tales, not helped by the obvious familiarity of the premise. It’s good that he’s trying different things with the show, but this felt below its usual standard; perhaps precisely because it was so atypical. Still, since the next ep pretty much confirms that all the other stories take place in the same universe, you can at least assume this one doesn’t – it is after all the only one where humanity is extinct. It’s an odd crumb of comfort.