Tuesday, January 2, 2018
Black Mirror: Arkangel
Arkangel, the second show in the fourth season of Black Mirror is plenty disturbing until it goes off-track. Most TV shows are ruined by the absence of any thought at all. When Black Mirror fails it is due to an excess of thought, too many good ideas clogging the esthetic pipeline. The opening 15 minutes of the episode is the most frightening because clinging most closely to ordinary experience. A single mother, living with her elderly father in the house, I assume, in which she grew up, becomes intensely protective of her daughter. The neighborhood in which the family lives looks tough -- it's a crumbling blue-collar enclave in what appears to be a crumbling industrial city, possibly a place like Allenstown, Pa. The mother delivered her daughter by C-section and the child may have been distressed and, even, in danger of dying immediately after the procedure -- this is all effectively shown through the mother's eyes and we never really know what happened. (It's the phenomenon that most of us may have experienced in intensive care when a patient endures a crisis and is swarmed by doctors and nurses who quickly and efficiently screen the medical emergency from witnesses.) Her daughter wanders off while playing in a tiny playground adjacent to a frightening railroad track and there's a menacing black German shepherd behind a cyclone fence a few houses away. In order to protect her daughter, the mother participates in a test of surveillance technology made by a company named Arkangel -- her daughter has a chip injected into her brain which not only locates the girl on a map but, also, has two other dangerously invasive features: the mother can access a mode that actually lets her see through her daughter's eyes and, further, when there is a excess of cortisol, (a hormonal sign of "fight or flight syndrome") detected in the young girl's system, the mother can press a button that "filters" out the scary stimulus -- a threatening dog becomes a mere blur of motion and the sound of the beast's barking becomes a faint whisper. With her laptop, the mother can effectively hear and see what her daughter hears and sees and, further, modify her responses to frightening or dangerous stimuli. There's too much here for an hour program and the show, after a frightening half hour, slides gently off the tracks. When the girl becomes a teenager and starts dating -- of course, a boy of which the mother disapproves -- the mother begins intense and voyeuristic surveillance. This ultimately leads to awful misunderstandings and calamity. (One path not taken is the mother's possible voyeuristic involvement in her daughter's sex life -- this thematic element, too disturbing I think even for Black Mirror is carefully eschewed: the mother is given a handsome boyfriend as well so that she is not tempted to live vicariously through her daughter.) Various aspects of the show are not integrated: the idea that the mother can limit her daughter's fear reaction to dangerous stimuli is not explored in a convincing way. First, the concept is flawed: it would seem that filtering natural reactions to fearsome events would make a person more, and not less, vulnerable to danger. Second, it is suggested that the mother's hypervigilance has, somehow, induced a counter-reaction -- that is, the daughter is more interested in horrible and gory things than she would be if these had not been filtered. At the climax of the film, the daughter violently assaults her mother but can't really see what is going on because of the filter -- but we haven't seen anyone turn the filter on. And why wouldn't the mother quash her daughter's nascent sex life by simply "filtering it" to make sensations less intense. There's a whole serpent's nest of nasty ways this show could develop but which are not explored -- of course, this is due to the brevity of the episode. Most of what is on screen is brilliant but doesn't fit together -- a good example is the virgin daughter's first experience of sex which she enlivens with an enthusiastic filthy commentary. This seems implausible and disconcerts the poor boy. But he understands what is going on -- the daughter is a consumer of porn on the internet and her obscene "play-by-play" is merely her attempt to imitate what she has seen on her phone or laptop. (The boyfriend tells her that she doesn't have to vocalize in that manner and she seems relieved.) Ultimately, the film proposes this moral: those who are hyper-vigilant about their children's safety, merely end up encouraging more risky and dangerous behavior. Whether this is true is left to the viewer. Jodie Foster directed this episode skillfully -- the film has a pseudo-documentary, neo-realist feel about it.