Sunday, January 7, 2018

Black Mirror: Metalhead and The Black Museum

Black Mirror's two final episodes are "Metalhead" and "The Black Museum".  Both are fascinating and frightening, although not completely satisfactory.

"Metalhead" is a stripped-down chase picture, a sheer jolt of adrenalin.  In a post-apocalyptic future, two men and a woman drive across a barren landscape to a warehouse.  They are looking for something, a "replacement" that is never named, although it is shown in the final image.  In the warehouse, the trio encounter a metallic watchdog.  The watchdog is fleet and fires swarms of glowing darts that embed themselves in the flesh of its victims so that the automaton can track them.  The robot is also equipped with a high-powered and lethal weapon that simulates a shotgun blast.  When the drone catches you, it blows you to pieces.  In the first ten minutes, the robot-dog kills the two men comprising the trio.  The survivor, a tough-as-nails woman warrior, finds herself relentlessly pursued by the mechanical dog.  The last 35 minutes of the episode detail the woman's increasingly gory battle with automaton.  "Metalhead" looks great -- it is shot in high-definition black and white; the images are so detailed that they have a sort of cartographic, military beauty:  we seem to see every pebble and every leaf on the trees.  From time to time, the point-of-view switches to that of the mechanical device pursuing the woman -- we see the animal scanning the rugged and barren landscape for its prey.  The show is essentially silent -- after a couple exchanges of dialogue in the car, the two men with the woman are blown apart and she is alone.  (As with the Icelandic episode, "Crocodile", the characters speak in some kind of northern Scottish dialect that is literally incomprehensible -- I couldn't understand a word that they said.  Thus, the purpose for the raid on the warehouse was completely unclear to me.  As it turns out, viewers who could understand the dialect note that it's not necessary to hear what is said -- the show is essentially a tour-de-force of violent action deployed across an unforgiving terrain and the duel is conducted in entirely visual terms.  There is absolutely no back-story as to what has happened, why people have been reduced to this state, or why human beings are relentlessly hunted and killed by the mechanical hounds.)  The show is a naked example of "what you see is what you get" film making -- it's totally pure, a graphic marvel of motion, space, and the most austere of all motives:  simple survival.  It's as if one of Jack London's most desperate narratives -- for instance, "To light a Fire" -- were made into a short film.  The film's ending is a variant on Citizen Kane's  big reveal -- the camera glides away from the site of the movie's climax, roving over the terrain over which the chase has been conducted, and coming at rest at last to the warehouse to reveal what the characters were trying to steal when the mechanical dog began its relentless pursuit.  The "reveal" is underwhelming, I think, but the overhead shots of other mechanical hounds loping after the first dog and sniffing around places where the woman rested or hid during the chase is spine-chilling.  There never was any hope at all, a fact that we don't appreciate until we see the sheer number of automatons unleashed to track the woman. 

"The Black Museum" is more ambitious and, so, I think less successful.  The story splices together two ideas:  the first is that sensations of pleasure and pain can be transferred by electrical impulse from one person to another.  This part of the story is told in flashback -- a woman driving across a hideously arid and remote-looking desert stops to recharge her electrical car.  Near the abandoned gas station where she is parked for three hours to recharge the vehicle, she finds a motel building converted into something called "The  Black Museum", ostensibly a museum of crime.  The creepy and, clearly, half-crazed proprietor of the museum meets her and, while giving a zany tour of the exhibits, tells her the story that comprises the first part of the show.  The story, involving transfer of pleasure and pain through a receptor in the temple and a transmitter that is glowing electronic helmet, is gruesome and disturbing.  A feckless doctor discovers that he can diagnose ailments better if he actually suffers what the patient is feeling.  And so, he puts the transmitter helmet on the patient, feels their symptoms, and, then, successfully makes his diagnosis.  One time, however, the patient dies and he experiences the exuberant release of endorphins that accompanies physical death.  He becomes an addict for this sort of experience and, ends up mutilating himself horribly -- he is now a pain addict.  He ends up stalking victims, putting the transmitter helmet on them, and, then, torturing them to death so that he can experience all the pleasure of being both a vicious sadist and a hopeless masochist. 

The second story in "The Black Museum" is also narrated in flashback.  This involves a device that allows the consciousness of one person to be transplanted into the mind of another.  A young husband's wife is injured in an accident and becomes comatose. The husband consents to transplanting her consciousness into his mind.  This is initially a blessing for both of them, but, predictably, enough turns into a nightmare.  The wife is censorious, angry, bitter and she relentlessly nags at the husband from within.  First, the husband is given a way to put her on "pause" and simply "shuts her off" for months at a time.  Ultimately, he develops a relationship with a woman who is, justifiably, jealous of his former wife living in her lover's brain.  The new wife orders her husband to transplant the consciousness of the former wife into a teddy bear toy that is capable of only two responses:  "Give me a hug" for sadness and "I love you" for happiness.  The disembodied woman's child plays excitedly with the bear for a while but, then, simply discards the toy -- and his mother who is trapped inside the stuffed animal.  This tale morphs into a third story about a convict who is executed in the electric chair -- in this story, the bad guy, a mad med-tech expert (who runs the Black Museum), records the consciousness of the convict at the moment he is dying in agony in the electric chair.  He, then, creates hologram of the convict that people can continuously re-execute in his museum by flipping a switch.  The convict's spirit, accordingly, is trapped in a repetitive, endless hell of being continuously electrocuted -- this is the same general idea behind the first episode called "U.S.S. Callister" as well as other earlier programs in preceding seasons of Black Mirror.  The girl touring the museum turns out to be an avenger and she wreaks a horrible vengeance on the smarmy med-tech guy managing the Black Museum.  The show is rife with inconsistencies and logical problems and doesn't really work at all.  It's scary enough and there is a foreboding sense of queasy doom about the show, but it's disappointing in the end.  (At the denouement, for instance, we see that the girl who has avenged the bad guy's crimes against humanity driving home -- she has her mother's consciousness embodied in her brain.  That's how she had sufficient evidence and moxie to implement her revenge scheme against the villain -- her mother aided her.  The ending is supposed to be happy but we know that having someone else's mind inside your head turns out to be a nightmarish plight -- thus the "happy end" of the show is happy only if we forget what we were shown a half-hour earlier.)  There is an interesting question of the origin of "Black Museum"; the show's credits name Penn Jillette, the magician, as the source for, at least, part of the hybrid show -- Jillette wrote something called "The Pain Addict" that would describe the first of the three parts in the "Black Museum".  However, in Great Britain, the BBC TV presenter Karl Pilkington, is said to have originated the idea for the part of the show involving two separate consciousnesses embodied in one brain.  Describing that phenomenon, the husband in the second flashback says:  "I can't even masturbate.  It's like having a cop in my brain who is also my mother."  In fact, years ago a Harvard neurologist posited something called the "bicameral brain" to explain that the gods in the Greek myths were merely other parts of heros' brains communicated to them directives toward action:  The name of the book was The Origin of Consciousness in the Bicameral Brain by Julian Jaynes.)

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