Tuesday 20 November 2018

Black Mirror is back and it's as disturbing as ever... with a few minor cracks

Black Mirror has returned to our screens with a brand-new series on Netflix and with a host of new stars, it's just as disturbing as ever

Mackenzie Davis, on left, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in San Junipero, the best of the new Black Mirror episodes
Mackenzie Davis, on left, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in San Junipero, the best of the new Black Mirror episodes
Bryce Dallas Howard in Black Mirror - 'Every single social interaction you make, no matter how trivial, is given a score of one to five'
This isn't just a clunky video game arc being used as filler
Alex Lawther as Kenny
Alice Eve in Black Mirror
Black Mirror

Pat Stacey

One of the benefits of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror being on Netflix is you can shuffle the six episodes into a personal viewing experience. That said, we can assume Brooker and Netflix chose the particular numerical running order they did for a reason.

This, presumably, is the way they’d prefer people to watch the series, so this is the way I watched episodes 1-4. No spoilers coming, by the way.

What’s obvious from the first one, Nosedive, written by Parks and Recreation’s Rashida Jones and Michael Schur from a story idea by Brooker, is the massive upgrade made possible by a Netflix budget.

Working on a scale that simply wouldn’t be achievable with Channel 4 money, director Joe Wright (Atonement, Hanna) creates a pastel-coloured world where social status and popularity are all that matter. Every single social interaction you make, no matter how trivial, is given a score from one to five.

Bryce Dallas Howard in Black Mirror - 'Every single social interaction you make, no matter how trivial, is given a score of one to five'
Bryce Dallas Howard in Black Mirror - 'Every single social interaction you make, no matter how trivial, is given a score of one to five'

Everybody rates everybody else by swiping their smartphones, and every rating is publicly shared.

Score 4.5 or higher from your peers and you’re part of the in crowd. Slide into the threes – or worse, the twos or ones – and you’re a pariah who might as well be dead. It’s all the social media-obsessed generation’s nightmares rolled into one.

Bryce Dallas Howard plays Lacie, a 4.2 who shares a house with her brother (James Norton), a 3.7 slacker who doesn’t give a toss about what people think of him.

Lacie desperately wants to boost her rating so she can get a rent discount on a fancy apartment that’s available only to 4.5s. Her chance to move up in the world comes when a popular old high-school classmate, a vacuous and malicious Barbie doll played by Alice Eve, asks her to be bridesmaid at her upcoming wedding – which would automatically send her rating through the roof.

Alice Eve in Black Mirror
Alice Eve in Black Mirror
Black Mirror

But a cancelled flight sparks a series of mishaps that turn Lacie’s cross-country trip into a full-scale disaster as her rating slides at alarming speed.

Like all the best Black Mirrors, this is just a few short steps from current reality. It’s not one of the best, though. It sets up the premise crisply, then spends far too much time labouring the point.

Playtest, directed by 10 Cloverfield Lane’s Matt Trachter, is the first of the new batch with Brooker as sole writer. It’s basically Black Mirror’s take on a haunted house story.

In this case, though, the ghosts haunting the main character (Wyatt Russell), a young American backpacker who rounds off his European trip by volunteering to test a Shigeru Miyamoto-like computer genius’s latest VR creation, are genuinely scary digital manifestations of his deepest fears (again, this is where the big budget comes into its own).

This isn't just a clunky video game arc being used as filler
This isn't just a clunky video game arc being used as filler

The false or twist ending has always been a staple ingredient of horror and SF anthology series. Brooker doesn’t give us one in Playtest, he gives us three, which is a little exhausting. The ending proper feels flat and unfinished.

Shut Up and Dance, co-written by Brooker and Will Bridges, is the only episode so far to be set entirely in England, and also the one that feels most like the old Black Mirror.

Alex Lawther as Kenny
Alex Lawther as Kenny

Sweet, shy teenager Kenny (Alex Lawther) installs malicious software on his laptop that takes control of his camera, films him masturbating while watching pornography and threatens to send the footage to everyone in his contacts list if he doesn’t carry out increasingly bizarre and dangerous tasks.

Co-starring Jerome Flynn as another victim of the hack attack, it’s a fantastically tense, blackly funny tale with a shock, rug-pulling ending that packs a terrific wallop.

The standout of the four episodes, however, is another Brooker solo effort, San Junipero. Frustratingly, it’s also the one I can reveal least about.

Yes, there are ingenious twists, but – brilliantly and unexpectedly – it’s essentially a tender love story that transcends time and consciousness, set in a mysterious American coastal town in the 1980s.

It’s astonishingly well-realised, beautifully acted by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis, and ultimately extremely moving.

Like no other Black Mirror episode Brooker has written, it’s one of the finest things he’s ever done.

BLACK MIRROR:

NOSEDIVE ***

PLAYTEST ***

SHUT UP AND DANCE ****

SAN JUNIPERO *****

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