This review contains spoilers for Metalhead.
After the quivering slab of weirdness that was Terminator: Genisys, it was a wonder what on earth was left to be done with James Cameron’s ageing killer cyborg franchise. This episode of Black Mirror, I’d argue, offers on potential answer: pare the damn thing right down to its bare essentials: a would-be human target on the run, and a homicidal machine in hot pursuit.
Director David Slade has form in tense, blood-curdling horror (see also: Hard Candy, 30 Days Of Night and, er, Twilight: Eclipse), and he brings a brilliantly lean nastiness to Metalhead – the timeless fable about a bunch of petty thieves who, in a post-apocalyptic future (presumably somewhere in the north of England) make the mistake of breaking into an apparently unguarded warehouse.
Shot in grainy, digital black and white – sort of like a mix of 28 Days Later and the high-contrast hell of Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man – Metalhead starts of tense and works its way to the arena of flat-out nightmarishness. The killer robot itself is a brilliant creation: protagonist Bella (Maxine Peake) and her doomed friends refer to it as a dog, but it’s also insect-like and somehow alien. When we first see it, hunkered up behind a cardboard box, it almost looks harmless: like a futuristic motorcycle helmet carelessly discarded by its owner. But then the damn thing fires off a salvo of tiny bullets – later revealed to be tracking devices – and its spindly legs unfurl.
It’s a superb introduction, partly because it establishes how spiteful and unpredictable this diminutive gadget’s weapons are. Not only can it blow a man’s head clean off, but it can also pick locks, drive a car and – in the episode’s most blackly comic moment – wield a knife like a maniacal circus juggler. The thing may not have eyes or a mouth, but the silent, endlessly resourceful robot is a real character – a kind of galloping Swiss Army knife.
Then again, Peake’s a great co-star, the archetypal ‘final girl’ in what amounts to a slasher movie that cuts right to the last act: the secondary characters are all slaughtered in quick, spectacularly gory fashion, leaving the protagonist trapped in a headlong, deadly pursuit. While all this is going on, writer Charlie Brooker sketches in a few background details: we can only guess at what specifically brought the world (or is it just the British Isles?) to societal collapse, and who it is that owns all these robot canines.
The third act, which takes place in the sleek, post-modern home of a wealthy and now very dead couple, offers a pleasing shift in texture. Suddenly, we’re removed from the earthy, dank warehouses and heaths of the first two-thirds, and taken to a cage of glass and shiny surfaces – the venue for Bella’s final confrontation with her nemesis.
Almost entirely devoid of talking heads (Brooker apparently toyed with the idea of avoiding dialogue altogether, a bit like Spielberg’s TV classic, Duel), Metalhead nevertheless lays out its technological concerns in one single, deftly-wrought image at the end. It’s a concise pay-off, too, of course – although it’s easy to forget the set-up in all the death and terror. Right at the start, Bella and her friends are trying to pilfer supplies of some kind from a warehouse. She mentions that it’s a for a child; we might assume that it’s something desperately important, like medicine. At the end, we get that long, masterfully-done overhead shot of the robot dogs closing in, Slade’s godlike camera taking us back to the plot’s trigger point. In the warehouse, the cardboard box lies on the floor, its content spilled out for us to see: a pile of plush teddy bears. Brooker’s bleak humour strikes through here, sure, but also Black Mirror‘s well-established themes about the darkest implications of new technology.
One of the scariest things about Metalhead‘s robots is their lack of artificial intelligence: their lack of empathy or emotional nuance means they’re entirely ruled by cold, pre-programmed logic. If they sense an intruder, then their job is to neutralise the threat – it doesn’t matter whether the intruder wanted to steal equipment worth millions or a stuffed toy worth a few pence.
We don’t have robot dogs patrolling warehouses just yet, of course, but there’s already been much talk in the news about military drones, and the point at which they become largely autonomous. Only this year, tech industry figures like Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak have urged that autonomous weapons ought to be banned before they even emerge. Metalhead, perhaps the scariest and visually arresting episode of Black Mirror yet, certainly adds fuel to their argument. Terminator, eat your heart out.
Read more spoiler-filled Black Mirror season 4 reviews and interviews here.