Black Mirror series 5 review

Another year, another bleak foray into the existential dread of the nature of the human condition. Although, this time, things seem a little different. Perhaps showrunner Charlie Brooker has discovered inner peace, or at least a substance based substitute, because Black Mirror series five is perhaps the franchise’s most optimistic and bright outing yet.

Continuing on Netflix following six expectedly dark episodes and one bizarre and disappointing AR experiment that Bandersnatched expectations and threw them down the loo, series five provides a comparatively conservative three episodes. The viewing order is seemingly random, so I’ll briefly break each down in the order I was shown; Striking Vipers, Smithereens, and finally Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too.

Reflecting on the three as a whole, there are two major differences when compared to previous series. Firstly; less of a reliance on future technology for narrative devices. Unlike the memory chips, cookies, and robot dogs of past series’, this edition could almost be considered contemporary. Facebook (sorry, Smithereens) and VR games are the targets of Brooker’s cutting ire instead. Of course, there is some tech that goes beyond the realm of current possibility, mainly within Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too, but instead of being horrifying and dread inducing, it’s just a bit too silly to believe. That said, this is the same series that tried to sell us on a prison-torture theme park, so make of that what you will.

That leads me nicely onto difference number two; tone. Historically, and especially during its initial Channel Four run, Black Mirror has taken an almost laughably bleak view of modern / future life via desperately depressing scripts. Horrifically dark twist endings would flirt with almost absurdist finales that would make even the grimmest Twilight Zone epilogue look like an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark. Not so in series five. While only one of the three endings could be considered ‘happy,’ another is certainly optimistic, and the final one is ambiguous, but admittedly, more traditionally ‘Brookerish’.

Striking Vipers 

Striking Vipers is about two dudes shagging as Street Fighter characters while telling themselves that ‘it’s not cheating’ (life hack fellas – if you’re hiding it from them, it’s cheating). Alright, so there’s more to it than that. The question of sexuality is probably the most underdeveloped aspect, and LGBTQ+ viewers will likely be disappointed to see how glossed over this conversation is, as it essentially amounts to ‘no homo.’ The VR concept is novel, and I’m always game for a conversation that encourages video games to be viewed as an art form worthy of intellectual discussion (as well as scantily clad fighters with fire punches), but the social commentary just doesn’t hit the mark here.

It should go without saying that all three episodes are shot real nicely, maintaining the washed out Black Mirror colour palette that gives the series its own identity. Performance wise, it was lovely to see nobody’s favourite Avenger Anthony Mackie show off some proper acting chops. He’s great, and I’d love to see him in more things. Overall, Striking Vipers is a beautifully filmed episode with great moments, but an ultimately undercooked script.

***

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Smithereens 

So this is the best one, without question. The commentary about the out of control state of social media, as well as how damn effective it is at keeping your personal data, to the point where it does a better job than the police, is terrifyingly on point. Andrew Scott is absolutely sublime here. He brings a genuine frustration that is so absolute, so severe, yet mathematical in nature. You don’t know what he’ll do next, and his performance combined with the tight script will have you on pins for the sixty five minute run time.

Other performances are equally excellent. I particularly enjoyed Topher Grace as a would-be Mark Zuckerberg, Billy Bauer. What could’ve easily been a one note villain becomes a sympathetic and almost likeable pawn of his own making, which was a great twist. One tiny gripe; the woman playing the lead British Police Officer was just…not good or convincing? Did no one pick up on this? Her intonation was all over the place, and the direction wasn’t strong enough to iron this element out. Luckily every other actor puts in the work and the result is a tense, brutal episode, that, while ultimately ambiguous, comes the closest to the quintessential shock and suspense that only Black Mirror can deliver.

*****

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Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too

Yikes. At the polar opposite of Smithereens comes Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too. Not only the weakest in the series, but a contender for worst Black Mirror thing, ever. It’s between this and Bandersnatch, because boy, this one was a tough slog.

There’s a great script in here somewhere. If the focus had been on Ashley O (Miley Cyrus), and the toxic relationship with her (hilariously) evil Aunt, we could’ve had some ace commentary about the music industry, corporate greed, and the breakdown of strained family relationships. Instead, we focus on two plucky sisters who learn the value of sisterhood via a talking, swearing Hannah Montana doll. It’s a mess. The Ashley doll is bafflingly played for comedy and the result is a haphazard, tonally inconsistent romp that ends (perhaps appropriately considering the lead) with a finale ripped straight from a Disney Channel movie.

That said, the performances delivered, cinematography choices, and editing are all on point. Miley Cyrus gives a surprisingly subdued, genuine performance that lets you empathise with Ashley’s situation. It’s just a shame that this well developed characterisation ultimately devolves into Pizza Delivery costumes / generic baddies / rat robots / doll road trip / crashing a virtual pop concert / forming a punk super group. Don’t hate me for spoilers, I’ve saved you an hour of your life.

**

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Overall, Black Mirror series five is the very definition of a mixed bag. Smithereens is instant classic and one of my personal favourites, with its realistic commentary that doesn’t veer off into absurdism, grounded by an exceptional lead performance from Scott. Then Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too is essentially well filmed trash that not only jumps the shark but proceeds to come back on a hoverboard, slaps the shark in the face, call its mum a dirty word, then jump over it all over again. Striking Vipers sits somewhere in the middle of the scale of badness, but the muddled script and message make me lean towards it being on the worse end.

I do, however, prefer the small episode release model though as it allows me to appreciate each episode properly and thoroughly. With series four, I find myself forgetting the specifics, as well as episode names, so I’m game for tighter series’ moving forward.

If history is anything to go by, one thing is for sure; Mr. Brooker pays attention to what people say. The main complaint on the twittersphere has been the lighter tone, so if his Netflix overloads allow it, I’d expect the inevitable season six to pile on the macabre scripts to make up for what could in hindsight be a breath of levity before we properly dive into the pits of despair.

★★★

Black Mirror series four (2017) review

Very rarely are television shows able to legitimately dub themselves as ‘unique’ in this day and age. Everything is either a sequel, spin off or remake of an existing property, or at the very least, has a similar narrative or tone to something familiar to us. Satirist Charlie Brooker breaks this mold with his anthology series (an already uncommon genre) that takes a look at the world we live in and warns the audience that the direction of the future might be bleak if we aren’t careful. In the same way that every episode is totally different, series four is a bit of a mixed bag for me. While I loved many elements, some episodes show Brooker taking a few too many liberties with the already fantastical future tech and leaps into what almost seems to be self-parody. That said, the good certainly outweighs the bad and the show remains as compelling as ever, it just isn’t quite as tight as it was in series one or two.

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Series four kicks off with a really strong opening episode that perfectly characterises what ‘Black Mirror’ can and should do with its anthology format; give us something unexpected. I almost wish that ‘USS Callister’ hadn’t been included within marketing materials so the surprise factor would have had more weight, but in the social media world we live in, that was never going to happen. For me, this is the strongest episode of the series, brilliantly blending a dark message about losing yourself within a virtual world rather than taking responsibility in reality with a frankly spot on parody of ‘Star Trek’ that injects some well needed humour and levity into the show. The tone of ‘Black Mirror’ has always been dark, but this is taken to extreme levels this series. Whereas the bleak and hopeless tone of ‘Metalhead’ feels earned as it sets itself up as a dystopia where humanity has all but died out, the brutal and frankly mean spirited ending of ‘Crocodile’ feels completely fabricated and is written as such simply to keep the series ‘shock value’ reputation afloat. You might call me a prude for this opinion, but whereas previous bleak entries such as ‘White Christmas’ or ‘White Bear’ expertly built up to a sinister climax with continuous strong plot reveals and adept social commentary, ‘Crocodile’ clumsily trudges along and is at times, quite boring, only to take a massive 180 turn at the end, almost to make up for the lack luster content of the second act. There are some lovely shots of Iceland though, so there’s that I suppose.

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Technology remains firmly weaved into the DNA of the show, with every episode again tackling a potential new piece of tech that has could ruin the users lives. That is, apart from ‘Crocodile’ which recycles a lower tech version of the memory viewing software seen in series one’s ‘The entire history of you.’ Thankfully, episodes such as ‘Hang the DJ’ and when you get to the core of it, ‘Metalhead’, present a more hopeful view of humanity, showing us that Charlie hasn’t quite given up on us yet. Brooker once said in an interview that his intention is to ‘worry us, not warn us’ about the encroaching effect of machinery on our everyday lives and for the most part, each episode does just this, acting as a cautionary tale for how something first seen as good, could end up profoundly changing the way we live for the worse. This is seen accumulating in ‘Metalhead’, the beautifully shot, entirely black and white grindhouse flick of the series. If theorizers are correct and the show does indeed take place in one all encompassing universe, then this episode must be the latest instalment in the timeline. The dystopian wasteland presented in the Scottish highlands leaves more questions than answers and allows the viewer to fill in the blanks. Perhaps the robotic dogs were another invention of TCKR, the company that produces many of the futuristic tech that we’ve seen so far. It would make sense that they finally produced something that went too far, going full ‘Skynet’ and becoming self aware with an innate desire to kill humans. Brooker did however allude to an original ending that saw a human controlling the dogs though, so who knows.

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The most polarising episode of all is the finale; ‘Black Museum.’ One of the most macabre episodes produced yet, it follows an anthology style format, almost identical to ‘White Christmas.’ While this episode is quite obviously inferior to the excellent (and so far only) Christmas special put out, I still found it to be an enjoyable, if silly affair. The technology presented in the second and third sub stories are laughably ridiculous and over the top. I would also like to point out that the idea in section two, where a man ends up with his deceased girlfriends consciousness inside of his brain is pretty much word for word the suggestion for a movie that Karl Pilkington proposed in 2006 on the ‘Ricky Gervais show’ which he called ‘The love of two brains.’ It was literally the plot of this section and was to star Clive Warren (he meant Owen) and Rebecca De Mornay (who I had to google to find out who she was). It’s hilarious that one of the cleverest shows around has legitimately used an idea presented as ‘a terrible idea for a movie’ in a serious manner and it shows here as it’s clearly the weakest idea in the episode.

Stronger episodes include ‘Arkangel’ and ‘Hang the DJ’, two very different stories, one far more hopeful than the other. ‘Arkangel’ is a bit heavy handed and predictable, but has a strong lead cast and a very interesting piece of technology, that is probably the most realistic of everything presented this season. ‘Hang the DJ’ I feel is a bit overrated, but has some wonderful acting and a really optimistic message about humanity vs technology. It’s actually one of the more heart-warming moments that the show has offered us so far. Its no secret that the show is inspired heavily by ‘The Twilight Zone’ and this series seems the most akin to its Rod Sterling roots. ‘Black Museum’ could almost be a ‘Twilight Zone’ episode with its lead character Rolo an over the top and Faustian character that tempts down on their luck customers with deals of fate, except, as its ‘Black Mirror’ these are all new pieces of tech designed to improve their lives. Despite the aforementioned stories being pretty damn silly and the ending just being ridiculous, I loved this homage to the shows roots, it really felt like Rolo was the Crypt keeper or Burgess Meredith’s devil as he manipulated his clients into taking his tempting fruit.

All in all, series four is certainly worth a watch. ‘USS Callister’ is far and away my favourite, but I have a lot of time for all of the others with the exception of ‘Crocodile.’ Its mean spirit and slow pace really leave you on a downer after watching it, so I highly recommend having a comedy on standby if you decide to go with it. That said, all of the episodes are beautifully shot and the creativity on display here is hugely commendable. There really isn’t anything else like it on television at the moment and as someone, like Brooker, who loves the old anthology horror/mystery/thriller shows like ‘The Twilight Zone’ it’s great to see a show like this for our generation.

 

My scores for all of the episodes of series four are as follows:

 

USS Callister: 9/10

 

Arkangel: 8/10

 

Crocodile: 3/10 (just SO MEAN)

 

Hang the DJ: 7/10

 

Metalhead: 6.5/10

 

Black Museum: 7/10 (Probably because of nostalgia for TTZ)

We love ya Charlie.

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