Black Mirror: 405 “Metalhead” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Well, this was a bit of a tonal shift. After the shot of joy of Hang the DJ, Black Mirror gives us another jolting, timely reminder that there’s not a whole lot more frightening than how, unchecked, technology will take us to a future with little hope, and there’ll be no-one to blame but ourselves. There’s been precious few instalments of the show in which this has been more prominent and stamped with authority than the fifth episode of season four, Metalhead, a black and white dystopia that despite running at the shows lowest ever length at just over forty minutes, is a non-stop adrenaline fuelled nightmare that’ll make you look at those Boston Dynamics videos with a bit more caution.
Metalhead was the episode of season four that we knew the least about prior to release, and after watching it’s understandable that the marketing played coy with its premise and revealed precious little. Charlie Brooker and producer Annabel Jones agonised for a while over the episode order for this season, and I’m extremely happy they chose Metalhead as the successor to Hang the DJ, such is its no-compromise stark contrast in both style and content. This is for my money the striking stand-out of the season looks-wise, tied with Crocodile, and like that episode Metalhead’s visuals help to portray a desperate, cold world, somehow managing to turn the stunning, colourful locale of Dartmoor where they filmed into a barren, desert-like landscape.
While we live in age of colour in modern cinema and television, as an artistic choice black and white can add untold atmosphere and bolster visuals just as much as when colour wasn’t an option. See the recent monochrome versions of films such as Mad Max: Fury Road and Logan, which have afforded the visuals an even greater beauty, and the use of a monochromatic style in Metalhead only allows us a stronger understanding of a world completely devoid of life, telegraphed in the opening conversation between our three survivors of this world, protagonist Bella (Silk and The Theory of Everything’s rapidly-becoming-iconic Maxine Peake) and her companions Clarke (x+y’s Jake Davies) and Anthony (Sus’s Clint Dyer) as they discuss how even pigs on a farm have been wiped out by the “dogs” as they drive along a hauntingly beautiful country road.
Bella’s companions are soon swiftly executed by one of the dogs in the warehouse that they’ve come to search for what we’re told is something vital for Bella’s nephew. Maxine Peake is a terrific actress, and the role of Bella is one she really digs into, which was necessary given the brief running time and constant intensity. Bella is yet another vivid female character to add to the Black Mirror back catalogue, and one in which Peake showcases the absolute best of her abilities, her horrified expressions as she watches her friends slaughtered selling the danger of the dogs instantly. Efficiency is one of Metalhead’s strengths, no doubt, and the chase never lets up.
Bella is a character we can relate to strongly, an everyday apocalypse survivor, her personality shining through from the opening conversation in the car. She’s fittingly human and emphatic in her will to survive, and its easy for us to sympathise with her struggle, especially given the relentless nature of the antagonist of Metalhead, the “dogs”, or in this case, a singular one.
Initially, you might think it looks slightly silly (I’ve even heard it called “cute”!) but from its first appearance it appears savage, with unfeeling nature, executing Anthony and Clarke, its look being function over form. The dog is an unrelenting force, focused singularly on its mission like the Terminator, and its resolute determination harks back to what made the original Terminator so effective, even taking control of the van after dealing with Clarke, and not even losing an arm after Bella traps it can stop “Metalhead” from marching on.
You might recognise the look of the dog from the Boston Dynamics robotics videos, and Charlie Brooker was directly inspired by them in the writing of the episode. You can see why, too- they’re so close to reality that they’re already here, rather than being “one step into the future” as the show often is. Sure, they’re not as advanced as the dogs in Metalhead, but they very presentably exist. And it makes them just that bit more horrifying. While on the surface, the immediate themes and message of Metalhead are not present, but it’s undoubtedly a pressing statement on the dangers of autonomous AI and drone warfare, even if we never find out the cause of the apocalypse presented here.
There’s been criticism aimed at Metalhead directed at its lack of exposition regarding the state of the world, but I feel the episode’s strongest aspect lies here. We don’t discover when, who-or what- happened to this world, all that matters is that we are seeing a world brought to the very brink. It’s the most apocalyptic Black Mirror has ever been, humanity seemingly knocked down to a handful of survivors (unless this is isolated to Britain?) The world building is confined to the visuals and the limited dialogue- a rusted car here, a talk about the dogs killing some pigs there- and we’re left to infer our own thoughts onto that. Are the dogs a form of security protection gone haywire? Are they the AI invaders of a foreign nation? Are they a military operation gone horribly wrong- maybe a continuation of the themes of Men Against Fire? Ultimately, the true answer doesn’t matter, only the situation- the dogs are faceless villains with no empathy, by our own creation.
I don’t feel the answers to the apocalypse matter too much particularly given the auditory and visual delights on display. Aside from the flat, despairing cinematography by Orphan Black’s Aaron Morton, the way in which director David Slade (Hannibal and Hard Candy) shoots the action is sublime, keeping the frenetic energy of the constant chase at anxiety inducing levels, and even the moments in which the pace is slowed a little, such as the picturesque night scene as Bella tries to outsmart the dog remain tension-fraught, almost falling off the tree she was hiding on before she attempts to escape.
Despite her best efforts though in out-smarting the dog, that’s not what this story is about. This is about human nature being crushed by cold, calculated machine effectiveness, and as Bella is followed to a gated house for Metalhead’s final act, there’s a sense of crushing inevitability to her fate as the dog takes a knife to replace its gun (a visual that walks the line of humorous and stomach churning-maybe the Daleks should take a hint with their plungers and get a different tool?) Bella is undoubtedly a resourceful character, and you almost think she’s won as she blinds the dog with some paint and thinks on her feet to trick it after she accidentally plays music (clearly the dog doesn’t like the Stranglers). Her success is short-lived after two satisfying shotgun blasts- the dogs final victory is complete, planting trackers in her once more, including her throat.
And, even the most optimistic beacon in this world is snuffed out, a tearful message to those back home later, which might not have even been heard. We’re forced to watch Bella rile herself up to slit her own throat, which mercifully we don’t see, though the sorrowful orchestra in the soundtrack (which is full of blaring horns and screeching vinyl throughout, stabbing us into panic ala Psycho) cues us to know what’s inevitably happened. There’s one final coda, though, as we sweep across the dog-infested landscape (the terrific camerawork must be pointed out here!) to the box that our survivors were hunting for- not medicine, but a box of teddy bears. The hope in this world is so utterly gone, that three people were willing to put themselves in mortal danger, commit to all we’ve seen, to bring a slice of hope back into a bleak world for a child and put a smile on their face. And exhale.
Perhaps then at the end of it all, Metalhead does carry some uplifting sense on from Hang the DJ, that no matter how apocalyptic and crushed our world may become, even if its to robotic killing machines that we’ve used to destroy ourselves, the goodness of humanity will always shine through, and will remain everlasting. Metalhead is a short episode length wise, yet its one of the most effective and skin-crawling due to this, a cautionary scenario that presents to us a world in which AI becomes truly horrifying. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea due to it seeming so disconnected and restraining from delving too deep in the world, and that’s fine. Metalhead works for me though as a short, sharp shock to the system, a no-frills attached throwback piece of horror. Maybe we should avoid fitting robot dogs with guns- everyone agreed?