Until now episodes of Black Mirror have felt like they have had something to say about us. It ain’t always been profound, and its arguments haven’t always been well constructed, but it’s always tried. It’s like playtest doesn’t even try, it’s too much in love with itself to create a working story. Too much in love with its tech too, Black Mirror’s always been firmly rooted in a love of technology but it has, so far, been mostly focussed on after the honeymoon. Brooker’s a nerd. Like, a huge nerd. And he probably spent some time playing with VR while writing this. Unfortunately, that’s all the episode is. Play. Because that’s what VR is to us; and our societal window has not expanded enough for reasonable critique.
So it begins with Cooper, played by Wyatt Russell (check him out in Everybody Wants Some!!!, one of this year’s best films) leaving home. He does so quietly, first thing in the morning. What he’s running from is revealed later, it’s ultimately not revealed to be truly interesting. One gets the sense that his escape from this environment: classical, wholesome, is supposed to mirror his later escape from reality. If that’s what they were going for it doesn’t really work, if not it makes me wonder what they were trying to do.
So he travels the world for a while and eventually ends up in London. Nearing the end of his journey and seeking comfort he hits up tinder (or this universe’s non-copyright-infringing tinder rip-off) for a date. She’ll be our exposition sponge for the next ten minutes. Hannah John-Kamen plays her as best she can I guess, the character gets some good moments. But she doesn’t really get to say much, or do much, or articulate any coherent worldview. She’s just listens to him as he explains his Alzheimeric father and distant mother. There’s no real provocation for him to do this, it’s useful for us to know, helps put the puzzle pieces together later, no human reason though. Her name’s Sonja by the way.
Coops finds himself short on the flight back home and, only knowing one person in London, contacts Sonja. He explains to her (and us, he keeps doing this) that he’s been using an OddJobs app to find work during his travels. Another interesting idea, a comment perhaps on apps such as Uber, a deconstruction of the sharing economy, an examination of the decentralisation of previously communal exchanges? Nah, it’s just a useful plot device. There’s a listing on there from dev studio SaitoGemu and Sonja, a tech journalist is hungry for pictures from inside the secretive developer. Here’s where the episode commits one of its major crimes. Brooker and director, Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane), have her demonstrate the company’s fame by brandishing a copy of Edge. This was their one chance to bring Zone back and they fucked it. That’s a joke, but I’m still disappointed.
He arrives at the facility. The episode could have started here. Would have saved me writing five hundred words about the boring bit. But seriously, this is like twenty minutes in at this point and it feels it. He’s toured around by resident everything doer Kate (Wunmi Mosaku, who you may have glimpsed briefly amongst the car crash that was Batman/Superman.) She’s good in this. She plugs him in and shoots his brain full of that game juice and he’s playing whack-a-mole with a virtual table friend. Props to both actors in this scene, they really go for it. You saw that cover of time magazine with the picture of Palmer Luckey on it? Russell goes that goofy, and Mosaku nails the restrained amusement that comes from watching someone embarrass themselves like that.
She then takes him to the office of Shou Saito who explains the concept they have for a spookygame. You put a program in your head that makes you hallucinate all your worst fears. If you manage not to freak the hell out you win… Sounds like a pretty shitty game. The horror equivalent of that nutmeg challenge. Maybe that was what the episode was about all along, the fact that VR games are shitty and bad and people only like them for the novelty factor! Somehow I doubt it.
They take Coop to their set, apparently it used to be a groundskeeper’s house. This was one well paid groundskeeper. Either that or they needed all the rooms for their two dozen children, things were different in the 1800s. The program starts throwing the basics at him: spiders, bullies, spider-bullies. Honestly though it’s all been defeated by the fact he so obviously fears mental illness and the loss of his family more. It’s like, they say ‘it will show you your greatest fear!!!11!1!’ in a ghost voice and the viewer is all like, ‘boom, Alzheimer’s, called it.’ From the very beginning we know where we’re ending up. So, whilst the jumps are fun, and there’s a sequence in which Sonja returns which is not given the commitment needed for it to be truly effective. The whole thing here just moves with a plodding inevitability towards dropping the A-bomb.
When it hits, it’s okay. Wyatt Russell performs it well and finds pathos in there but it’s just undone by how turgidly everything moves up to this point and how quickly the rest of everything has to unfold. Kate and Shou rush into the room, along with a bunch of other non-characters and suddenly half the cast is in action movie mode. The edit can’t decide, it’s jumping fast between the developers and holding for ages on their subject, it feels choppy.
Then there’s the twists. They can’t save him. But he wakes up and it turns out that that was the game all along. And he goes home and his mother doesn’t recognise him anymore. But he, well he doesn’t wake up, he dies because he secretly turned his phone on to take pictures. I could have been on board here, I really could, but the character’s reaction to this is the worst. They’re not acting like humans here all pretence of this being Earth is shot. A man died. Even if they were expecting it, as was suggested earlier, they could have shown some disappointment. Or interest. Or excitement.
Really anything would have been better than what we got. They stand around like he just flopped his dick out and everyone’s too awkward to say anything then Saito asks what he said when he was dying. ‘Mom.’ – ‘Make a note of that.’ That’s the last frame a form in which is filled that he called the word ‘mom.’ So that’s who the real villain was after all. Not game developers, or tech journalists, or our frail human minds; but Charity-Shop-Freud. Who is invoked by every lazy scriptwriter dying for the last oedipal punch.
Black Mirror has always been a show about the love of technology by people who love technology. The very foundation that the show lies upon is the belief that this stuff is powerful enough to change us. Playtest never finds that. It never manages to convey how we transform, only that we can. In failing to do so it only manages to be sci-fi. Which would be fine, if only it were better.