The Black Mirror episode of the season that strays from its twist-reliant formula is the one that feels least like it belongs and the least likely to hold your attention. Its first draw is its monochrome black and white, which often—in modern media—promises cinematographic wonder. Here, it just leaves one wondering.
“Metalhead” is not concerned about beautiful images nor intense expressions. The David Slade-helmed episode cares about the apocalyptic end to un-optimized humanity. The human side of this future, who begins the episode with some Tarantino-esque banter (fast-paced and inconsequential in a hellishly violent world), is played by Maxine Peake. The inhuman side is played by these goofy-looking robot dogs that kill the absolute hell out of humans.
Peake’s character is on a supply run with some friends, which starts with plenty of promise and detail. Numbers are given weight as entry codes and markers for the correct crate, which fills the plot out with scrappy desperation. Hackers pounding away at screens of code is too clean for this world, but having a six-digit figure scrawled on your arm? That’s an experience everyone’s had from taking down phone numbers to scribbling class reminders. Here, in the post-apocalypse? It’s earnest and charming.
That earnestness continues with varying results as the crew stumbles upon one of these dogs, which wakes and terminates before we have a chance to go “look at that weird egg.” It’s here that the colorlessness (which does enhance some gripping facial expressions) is its most hindersome. The grayscale gives everything an especially unreal sheen. The dogs have a similar problem. In the one way, the episode’s substance reflects its style—the blank metal dog is all too suitable in this greyscale world, which makes it jarring as a stop-motion creature. Its animation and design are too simple; beyond the reference to Boston Dynamics’ robot walkers, its movement and styling borders on adorably jankity. It’s not the imposing, minimalist murder machine it needs to be. The iconic imagery simply isn’t there in the design. It’s a shadeless lamp with gun legs and a bad attitude.
But it’s certainly pissed enough and, upon waking, its chase and destruction of its disturbers is both pretty fun and utterly ridiculous. The action ends as abruptly as it starts, switching gears to a more slow-burn hunt story. Peake, rid of the dog for now, has to dig out a tracking barb shot in her leg, which is momentarily engaging (thanks to Peake’s performance) but still relies on the same stick-biting knife-digging so overused in survival movies.
There’s a distinct lack of tension in the episode’s direction. It meanders for the sake of meandering, sprinkling in spoken attempts to build out the world, with small lines referencing names we’ve never heard. With a longer format or a tighter script, this is the right idea, but here it cuts away from the already-curtailed 40-minute pursuit. There’s no room to pause when you don’t have character, plot, or action. If tension is what you’re betting it all on, every shot better make me nervous.
The most effective piece of direction is a waiting-game sequence that ensues once the dog traps its squirrel up a tree. A plan is formulated and undertaken completely visually, without exposition. It’s smart, minimal, and charmingly embodies the episode’s thematic opposition of human maximalism against soulless efficiency.
However, that scene is bookended by rote action plot furtherers (barb-digging and key-getting) that end up with Peake’s character looting a skeleton-inhabited house while our excitement nears that of its inhabitants. “Why does it grab a knife? It has gun legs,” is something I never thought I’d think—and when it came up it was far less exciting than any imagined answer to my question.
“Metalhead,” for all its meaningful violence and philosophical dichotomy (people rule because they like things that aren’t specifically optimized for perfection, like candy and casual sex), ends up more dorky than anything else: Its lasting image is a knife-wielding Poo-Chi hobbling towards you. While its sparseness is an admirable attempt for the series, Black Mirror is going to have to tighten its aim if it hopes to find success outside its talky bread-and-butter.
Read all of Paste’s episodic reviews of Black Mirror here.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.