Warning: contains spoilers for Black Mirror season 5 episode Striking Vipers. Here’s our spoiler-filled review.
As a rule, very few interviewees burst into improvised song, invent a nightmarish new form of bum-based cinema and mime bashing down a gentleman’s enthusiasm with a shoe while plugging their new TV series, but then very few interviewees are Charlie Brooker.
Den Of Geek found Brooker and Black Mirror producer Annabel Jones in high spirits as we discussed the opening episode of season five, Striking Vipers. In the film, Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul Mateen II play old college pals who reunite in later years over a videogame and discover an unexpected side to their friendship.
Here’s a spoiler-free section of the chat, and below is the spoiler stuff, featuring erection machines, boob-y video game chat, strong language and, er, goolies.
Annabel Jones: I think a lot of actors I think wouldn’t have taken this role. There’s a lot of ambiguity in the film, there’s a lot of [to Brooker] I can’t say ‘sexual fluidity’ because you’ll go ‘Ooh! Fluid! That’s rude. Ugh!’ [all laugh] Anyway! [claps hands] Not a lot of people would have taken the role but because maybe he [Anthony Mackie] is often seen as being the epitome of masculinity, he absolutely relished the opportunity to break that and to challenge it.
Going into this wish-fulfilment, fantasy-fulfilment world we facilitate through VR in the film, he has this relationship with his old friend, his sort of college buddy roommate where they’ve had much more of a masculine bromance going on. The game ends up subverting that and exploring friendship and what friendship means and God, there’s so many ideas in that film, I’m going to shut up, but Anthony Mackie’s great.
Charlie Brooker: He is.
AJ And then Yahya [Abdul Mateen II] with him as a perfect complement.
CB And Nicole [Beharie] is brilliant, they’re all really really good.
AJ I loved Nicole. For all the time that Black Mirror gets talked about as being a show about technology, you make something like Striking Vipers which hopefully has such personal resonance about what it’s like to be ageing and to be removed from your youth and finding your identity when you don’t have those staples that you’ve grown up with. It’s about reassessing yourself and trying to find a position and identity in the world, it’s all about that and how can relationships last and can you sustain them, and is there such a thing as being the perfect soul-mate that’s going to satisfy you for the rest of your life? All of those universal themes are going on in that film.
CB I agree with everything you just said.
AJ Oh god, that must hurt. Are you alright?
CB Don’t touch me! [All laugh]
That whole thing in the episode about how guys can be awkward talking to each other…
AJ [Sarcastically] No way!
AJ He said it, not me.
CB But he said it and you agreed … in a sarcastic way.
AJ So therefore …
CB Don’t gaslight me by pretending you didn’t! [Laugh]
Do you think it would be a very different film if it was a female friendship that went through that same ringer?
CB It’d be closer to San Junipero, possibly. I don’t know. I think that certainly the dilemma they find themselves confronted with is a very unusual one that makes them question who they are and I guess that’s pretty universal, if you had that experience or you suddenly found yourself in an arena where you’re there with an old friend of yours but you’re physically different and you’re attracted to each other – what that means I think would translate to either. I think.
AJ I was just thinking about the vanity, not vanity, but one of the things that Anthony’s character gets in the game is the sort of feeling that his body is youthful again and so he’s got his old physique. He’s toned and fit and his knee doesn’t hurt and he looks amazing, but I think that applies to men as much to women these days. I think it’s probably more of an equal playing field. I don’t think it would be that different.
CB Something we don’t quite go into is that you don’t have couples using it to spice up their [relationship]. Sort of in a way they are using it [like that], but it’s a bit like somebody dressing up as a fireman [laughs] like a couple doing that.
Frankly, the manufacturers of that game are burying the lede by making their game apparently a fighting game. Clearly there’s more going on in it! Why did they bother programming goolies? Goolies is a word that isn’t used enough in the 21st century.
AJ Probably not allowed.
CB Goolies? You can say goolies. Goolies is going to make a comeback.
AJ Let’s make a film called Goolies.
CB [Laughs] Okay.
On the subject of fighting games burying the lede and going for something else but not really promoting it, were you at all inspired by the stuff around Dead Or Alive 6 this year?
CB I did not see that. I’m aware of the Dead Or Alive franchise, it’s basically a bit like Baywatch, isn’t it? In fact we did I think as a reference – because we were looking at references for various fighting games and I was sending over all sorts of links and at one point I think I sent over a link to …
AJ Baywatch [laughs]
CB No, it was Dead Or Alive. It was like ‘look at this, it’s very boob-y’ It’s insanely boob-y.
In the new one, they did a thing where, in the standard version of the game you don’t get the boobiest outfits, and then there’s a very expensive DLC where you get the sexier versions of characters.
AJ That’s interesting that then one of the most progressive mediums is also the most regressive.
CB Hello?! Videogames being technologically progressive? Yes. But if you look in terms of storytelling, I mean, there’s still a lot of – I mean, it’s changing – but generally speaking a lot of the stories are hard men and damsels in distress. It is changing but there’s a lot of storytelling that is quite old-fashioned.
AJ Okay. I was just thinking of the one with the father and the daughter.
CB The Last Of Us. But even in that, it’s actually a young girl that he befriends because his daughter – spoiler – dies at the start. It’s sort of a proxy daughter. I think she’s the main protagonist in the sequel.
AJ Booby elements though. Not many mediums are bringing out ‘here’s a booby franchise for you!’
CB I don’t think people were welcoming it and going ‘this is a good thing’. I suspect it was a controversy because people were saying a) I don’t know that that’s a good thing and also b) so you’re making me pay to…
AJ Watch people’s boobs.
CB It’s a bit like if you brought out a film and then instead of when you go to the cinema and it’s do you want to sit in the normal seat or the VIP seat that they have now, like a fucking throne, soon they’ll have a throne ‘do you want to sit in the VIP seat or do you want to sit on the throne and watch this film and be driven into the auditorium in a fucking chariot ya cunt?! If you pay an extra five pounds, the actors will get their bums out. You can press a button and see any of the actors’ bums at any time if you pay an extra five pounds!
AJ Was it successful, did people pay?
I think it was a Twitter scandal. People were annoyed.
CB Were they annoyed that they had to pay to see it or annoyed that this existed as a thing.
A bit of both. There were some people who are like, Dead Or Alive has always been like the sexy fighting game, it’s kind of its USP, so you’ve made a watered down version of it to try and appeal to a wider audience, but then the core fans who love the booby stuff were annoyed.
CB Right. They were cross. It was like having to pump coins into an erection machine [laughs]
AJ That’s where the money’s going!
CB [Adopts comedy voice] I’ve got a £2 coin somewhere, come on! [laughs loudly]
[Various exchanges relating to where you’d put the coin in an erection machine. “The tip” suggests Jones. “A coin?! That’s going to really hurt. You’ll have to bash that in with a shoe,” says Brooker. More laughter.]
The scene in the episode where they meet in real life in the alley and Karl says ‘no fireworks’, my reading was that Danny maybe did have some fireworks but didn’t want to admit it?
CB It’s an interesting one in that I think they’re sort of being honest there. That it is just in person they find it … they decide to test that out because they sort of have to know, so I think actually the reaction is correct, what they’re coming out with. But it’s different in the game, so it’s saying this doesn’t physically work here in this realm, but in there it does.
AJ Karl is the one who is more disappointed in a way, because even though, because of the confusion of it all, they desperately want to know what this is and so when they come together there’s a ‘so if this is a real thing then we’ll deal with it’ and when nothing happens then Danny is sort of relieved, because it’s like ‘okay, my marriage is not going to break up and I still feel I’m in the right place’ and Karl is feeling also relieved but then threatened because he thinks this is not going to carry on in the game. For him it is his perfect high, it’s where he feels most liberated and most excited, so he now is worried. No, I think that scene is a genuine ‘we just need to know’.
CB I agree.
The ending where Danny and his wife come to an agreement…
CB It’s quite pragmatic.
Is that one that will start conversations between couples around the globe?
CB It certainly will if that game ever comes out!
AJ It’s an un-traditional romantic ending in that everyone is happy. They’ve all found a compromise where they are happy, but of course that has meant they’re all having affairs of sorts. Nicole’s character needs to go off and sate this need to feel excited and loved and have a little bit of danger in her life, and Anthony’s character needs the sort of escapism and wish-fulfilment, and Karl is more on the periphery and again, quite isolated, having this once-a-year experience, but it’s enough to sustain him.
I like the way we’ve managed the ending in that you’ve got this very old-school romantic score going over the top and it all is beautifully shot and nice little vignettes and yet actually when you come away you think ‘okay that’s go-ood but that’s also more pragmatic than romantic.’
CB But then there’s something very romantic about being very pragmatic with someone and being very realistic and accepting them. Love is meant to be accepting someone with all their flaws and their needs and their idiosyncrasies and their need to fuck someone on a skyscraper in a computer game! [Laughs]
AJ There’s a personal indictment!
CB If you can’t take me at my most ‘fuck someone on a skyscraper in a computer game’ then you don’t deserve me at my…
AJ It’s all getting very personal [laughs]. Untraditional romantic ending, but probably very realistic. I imagine it will [start conversations]. It’s not a conversation that many couples dream of having on their wedding day – not that I’ve ever got married – but I think it’s a very realistic one.
Read more about Black Mirror season five on Den Of Geek here.