This Black Mirror review contains spoilers.
When I was a kid, I was freaked out by the movie Robocop. It wasn’t the dystopian depiction of a greedy, authoritarian government drunk on unchecked capitalism or the eerie implications of man playing God that scared me. Nope, it was those damn ED-209s. You know, those big, bad robot-thingys with legs? I hated them, glitching and walking like cyberpunk T-Rex. Aided by the technology of the era, the creepy way those death machines twitched with each movement and stomped around was deeply unsettling to me.
Of course, now that I’m older, I find those other aspects of Robocop equally, if not more, disturbing. Between the distortion of mass media by corporate interests, the privatization and corruption of police, and the misuse of technology, the themes of that film are definitely as unsettling as poorly animated killer robots. It’s the same themes that make Black Mirror scary. The show traffics in many similar tech-horror beats, often delivering parables about technology. But that’s not how “Metalhead” is trying to scare you. “Metalhead” struck such a nerve with me, because it barely, on surface level alludes to some of the same themes, but prominently features much more effectively animated killer robots.
Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker said that if this season of the series were an album, that “Metalhead” would be a “2-minute punk single.” An intentionally paired back, literally black-and-white story, “Metalhead” is scarce on the specifics. All the information that we’re given is that somewhere, someone named Jack is unwell and a group has travelled to retrieve a MacGuffin that will make him feel better. When the group arrives to retrieve said object, they unknowingly awaken a “dog,” a four-legged deathbot who wipes out all but one woman (Maxine Peake), and a battle for survival ensues.
Director David Slade (30 Days of Night, Hannibal, American Gods) is no stranger to scaring audiences, and he does his best to conjure up some terror, shooting the skittering “dogs” from overhead as they hunt across a barren wasteland. The suckers really make you coil in fear from the get-go, with attacks that make you glad the episode is colorless. The dreary look of the episode immediately brings to mind Logan, with its desert landscapes and future-western vibe. With a sparse score that only kicks into gear when the director wants you to start feeling the dread, Slade makes the “dogs” Netflix’s second best dog-like creatures, after Stranger Things’ Demodogs.
Peake (The Theory of Everything, The Village) is wonderful as The Final Woman, especially in her one-sided dispatches. Without knowing any background, the audience is immediately able to empathize with her character due to some well-timed tears and voice cracks. Her final call of resignation is more poignant than anything a series like The Walking Dead has been able to pull off in ages.
The lack of detail even works to the episode’s advantage. I spent a lot of time trying to decipher what the signature Black Mirror twist would be. Was the group trying to retrieve medicine? Was this a story about the future of healthcare, where meds are protected by government controlled, A.I. weapons? Are we set in a Terminator-like dystopia where machines have become self-aware? Without context or clues, it’s funny how your mind fills in the gaps with your own worries and fears. In the end, the episode reveals what’s in the box that the group was trying to acquire, but I wish it hadn’t. The reveal, of a box of teddy bears, made me laugh at its faux-profundity like the “Martha” business in the climax of Batman V Superman.
A silly twist isn’t enough to derail this scaled-back horror tale, which feels like a welcome respite to some of the more plot-heavy installments. Though not an upper echelon episode of the series, it’ll supply the same thrills and suspense as some of the year’s best horror films in about half the time.