Black Mirror: 501 “Striking Vipers” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Black Mirror has come a long way from the humble embryonic nightmare of a show it was on original British broadcaster Channel 4, blossoming into the monolith of television it is today. I’m sure series showrunners Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones could never have envisioned being able to attract the likes of Miley Cyrus, but here we are with the (finally arriving) Season 5 of Black Mirror. Kicking off the (sadly only three stories run due to Bandersnatch’s development) new season is Striking Vipers, a tale that manages to be as distinct as it is familiar and complex.
There’s something nicely low-key about Striking Vipers, especially after the high-concept, mind-bending Bandersnatch. A prologue introduces us to college roommates Danny (Marvel Cinematic Universe star Anthony Mackie) and Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, recently starring in rival DC’s Aquaman). They’re a tight-knit bro-duo who love partying and late night video game sessions- to the annoyance of fellow roommate, and Danny’s girlfriend, Theo (Sleepy Hollow’s Nicole Beharie). Eleven years later, Danny and Theo are married with a young son. Both seem inescapably tied to the humdrum of middle-class marital life- leaving them yearning for freshness and excitement again, despite their clear love for each other.
Re-enter into Danny’s life after a year away Karl, with a special gift at Danny’s unbearably banal birthday BBQ- Striking Vipers X, the brand-new instalment of their favourite old fighting game. It’s had some upgrades- namely now involving an immersive virtual reality, allowing far more than just button mashing. Danny and Karl are given the chance to explore themselves, see how their relationship stands after so long, and discover how deep their love goes. Does it go beyond simple boyish bravado? Mackie and Abdul-Matten II have likeable, believable chemistry, selling the vibe of two men struggling for their comfortable place in the world. There are clear unsaid thoughts and a bit of a strain between them as time has passed, but a love however apparent is certainly there as they reminisce on days long gone.
The buddies have changed in time- or not so much, in the case of Danny. Karl, despite his success at a music label, has lost the confidence in himself and his identity, now lingering in the past- dating far younger women and stuck playing new versions of old games in his bachelor pad. Danny however, even in the past, always seems pensive and aloof- spending time at his BBQ engaged in unexciting chit-chat with other be-polo shirted dads and looking at other women, reflecting on his life as Karl reflects on his own. Is this existence what either of the men wants?
Striking Vipers X gives the men a new chance, an existence which is tricky to define. In the hyper-real- and vividly presented- VR world of Striking Vipers X, players inhabit completely their characters, allowing full sensations of pain and, more pressingly, pleasure. Inhabiting their favourite characters- Karl as the agile Roxette (Pom Klementieff, another MCU stalwart) and Danny as the muscular Lance (Ludi Lin, who also starred in Aquaman) – they soon discover the feelings the game provides is like nothing else in comparison. Both fighters are stylised and over-the-top characters, occupying saturated Mortal Kombat like worlds, allowing the disconnection between realities to occur. It doesn’t take long for the fighting to turn into kissing, and all new relationship paths for the two long-time friends open up.
There’s a surreal edge to the interactions in the game world, especially with voices a strange meld of their fighters and their own. The juxtaposition of passionate love with the fighting iconography is a stark contrast, keying us as much into the heightened sensations and frame of mind Danny and Karl are in as their confliction and guilt while their in-game love affair develops. Their odd, heartfelt chats play out through their avatars, in such locations as a firefly filled, calm night-time temple, and typical dream-love tropical scenarios. Director of Photography Gustav Danielsson and his team craft images just as lush as Danielsson’s prior story San Junipero, working overtime to sell the fantasy fulfilment element for the two friends.
The technology itself, while *another* neural implant, is symbiotic to our modern world, suited for that “ten minutes into the future” line Brooker coined (there’s a comic thought too in the fact that these trouble-making attributes are found in a fighting game). The internet has provided us with a whole world of ways to connect- emotionally and physically- for intimacy, romantic fulfilment and sexual pleasure, not least in offering vital potential personal discovery for many to explore and imagine themselves differently- away from social strain, judgement or boundaries.
It’s role-playing’s natural end point- a world where you can be whoever or whatever you want to be, discovering how the best versions of us could be. Danny and Theo engage in roleplaying for excitement in the prologue, so it’s not an outlandish thought. This tech allows the full concept- sexual liberation without constraint. In the physical world, Danny and Karl haven’t had sexual flirtation, never mind touched, and their actions remain separated in the virtual world. But the consequences do seep out- unable to be compartmentalised. It raises interesting thoughts of what we have, versus what we could have, and the conflict this causes- questioning the very language we can actually describe these experiences with. How much do virtual experiences affect our lives, and should we be judged for seeking fulfilment this way? What are the boundaries between our realistic selves and our potential selves, when the possibilities are now endless?
Striking Vipers succeeds by inversing familiarity to tell its story of friendships and relationships. The love triangle of Danny, Theo and Karl have a web of feelings and desires of their own. Questions raised such as if the nature of Danny and Karl’s relationship is cheating- if they can feel everything, mentally and physically, but their bodies in reality are slumped in their sofas- are pointed without judgement. We’re shown all the visual hallmarks of cheating (even the shady closing of doors) yet it’s to Brooker’s scripts’ and director Owen Harris’ (director of past episodes San Junipero and Be Right Back) credit that none of the characters are “blamed” for what happens- they’re engaging in supremely surreal acts, with a new tech that opens a million undefinable possibilities, and a way out from mundanity is often enough.
Striking Vipers feels personal, with focus on the sense of longing for connection that the best of the show highlights, with Karl’s hyper awareness of his age gap and Danny’s inability to be passionate brought to the forefront. Even keel is given to Theo and how she is connected, given doubt as the Danny-Karl affair develops. During Theo’s superbly delivered and vulnerable rant, Danny “shrivels away” as she describes her lack of physical attention. Karl too, is the classic lonely successful man chasing the new high or satisfaction, describing that everyone else “didn’t get me like when we’re in there, you and me” to Danny. It’s video games as high level escapism, real friends with benefits giving Danny the highs that marital life lacks, as with Karl in his bachelor life. It’s their connection that keeps us understanding all three characters, none of them true antagonists. Technology in Striking Vipers enables human faults in the changing of relationships, some made closer and some more distant.
What is most poignant is the romantic connection Danny and Karl have, through the avatars they use. Even without physical romance in the real world, the tech gives them a “transcendent” experience, which a surprisingly mature choice of a test kiss in rainy tundra (shot like a real life stage of the game) proves may be purely virtual, awkwardness abound. There are subtle hints at something deeper in Danny’s reaction- is frustration there? It’s telling that soon after, we see only the second actual fight- in reality. Can you blame these two friends for having been led down this path, offered youthfulness, virility and “true” connection anew in a limitless world? I would’ve loved if this scene went deeper into the themes, perhaps relating to real physical violence suffered by those of sexualities society at large doesn’t understand, but as it stands it’s a tease of something more.
Not One Minute More by Earl Grant scores a memorable Black Mirror musical end, following Danny finally opening up to Theo, which kept me thinking on the messages of the story and climactic moments. Did the “solution” really lead to healthier relationships, or is it just exacerbating unhealthy behaviours? The arrangement may let Theo explore her desires she prior admitted ignoring and let Danny and Karl’s relationship bloom, but it’s telling that the final shot, the last “fight” now takes place in a real setting, the skyline of the city, as the fantasy has permeated fully into the reality.
It’s an ending that could’ve likely played out equally in a different way without the tech, with its stance on open relationships, and it’s surprisingly adult in that- showing that we as people can adapt to technology changing our relationships, with co-existence of old (monogamous marriage) and new (virtual romance) ways of fulfilment possible. You could read this as equally happy, yet bleak. It’s a flawed resolution that could lead to trauma in the future, and Karl is seemingly stagnating. However, your take on the ambiguity- I fully endorse that getting a cat increases your happiness.
Striking Vipers is a fitting companion piece to San Junipero, as a meditative, self-reflective look at complex layers of self-image, relationships and love. It shows how the virtual sphere can equally hurt real-life perception and lives as much as bringing to life the magic of any possibility, transcending the often monochrome human world to open up new experiences of romantic connections- and how to make those new relationships work. Mackie, Abdul-Mateen II and Beharie show with often quietly upsetting poignancy how easily relationships can change, how nostalgia can be dangerous, and how we can reconcile desire with responsibility. It’s a story focused on technology’s effect on our sense of identity, relevant to our changing world’s perception of gender, and how virtual spaces can change our sense of our real world selves- asking questions we may very well soon have to answer. Let’s hope none of those answers involve polar bears.