Black Mirror: Metalhead

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“Run Bella Run”

Black Mirror has consistently been the standard for thought-provoking, usually (although not always) dystopian science-fiction since it first aired in 2011. The latest season, the fourth, premiered on Netflix just before Christmas, and the fifth episode falls squarely into our wheelhouse. Filmed entirely in black-and-white, it’s set in a post-apocalyptic landscape following some unspecified catastrophe. A group of three people prepare to raid a warehouse in search of supplies – and, in particular, one item. However, their search alerts a security robot, which looks somewhat like a greyhound made of black metal, and makes quick work of two intruders, leaving only Bella (Peake) left to pursue. The robot’s combination of stamina, speed and absolute lethality will require all her human ingenuity, if she’s to escape.

The influences here are numerous. You could start from Terminator crossed with Night of the Living Dead, though there was a 1953 SF story by Arthur Porges called ‘The Ruum’ which was also built around someone pursued through a rural landscape by an unstoppable robotic pursuer. As such, this is always going to be a limited scenario, especially when there’s only person on the other side. It was probably wise for the makers to keep this at a crisp 41 minutes; the other entries in the season run as long as 76 minutes. However, I still had a feeling they left food on the table, storywise: this was especially true at the ending, where the strength of character Bella had shown to that point, apparently deserts her entirely. It seemed to me she still should have had fuel left in her tank, and this made for a disappointing conclusion.

Until then, however, it was a very well-constructed thrill-ride, with Bella using her smarts to deal with everything her dogged (hohoho!) adversary can throw at her. The balance ebbs and flows between the two, as human and robot tussle across the battlefield, both using what they can find along the way to help themselves. [Sideline: why is it, whenever anyone picks up a knife in a kitchen to use as a weapon, it is always the Psycho knife?] Especially in the latter stages, when the setting moves from the countryside to inside a house, it almost seems to nudge over into slasher film territory, with Bella as the “final girl” – albeit one rather more mature than the usual, teen-aged inhabitants of that trope.

Like the best dystopias, there’s more than an element of plausibility here, with the robot’s shape and movements inspired by the (somewhat creepy) products already being put out by Boston Dynamics. It’s also more straightforward than many Black Mirror episodes: creator Charlie Booker specializes in the final “gotcha”, a twist that radically re-defines what has gone before. Here, this is limited to a last shot in which the viewer discovers the purpose of the raid on the warehouse, and it’s more poignant than upending. It may not be one of the most memorable Mirror stories, which stick in the mind long after it has finished. Yet it’s an efficient and lean effort, capable of standing alongside any other episode.

Dir: David Slade
Star: Maxine Peake

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