‘Metalhead’ is the second last episode of Black Mirror‘s fourth season and it is the simplest episode of the season. In that simplicity, it might seem more complex than it really is. There is nothing more than the surface level of interpretation here, unlike episodes like Arkangel that might have required some research into child psychology to understand the nuances of. The inconsistencies and problems with ‘Metalhead’ are numerous, so lets start with the surface level stuff before diving into those.
On the surface, Metalhead is nothing more than a short episode on what it’s like to live in a post-apocalyptic world. Small little robotic dogs have taken over the world and are keen on eradicating any and all humans they come across.
The main character, Bella, and two others leave whatever safe haven there is for humans in order to get something that will make the last few days of a dying child easier. The mission isn’t completely fruitless either, as Bella states that there will be useful things like “batteries and stuff” in the warehouse they plan on raiding.
The plan goes awry when one of the robots was apparently lying in wait to ambush them. It spits out something like a frag grenade, with each piece of shrapnel acting as a beacon. Bella manages to escape, but is chased down by the robot.
It is so relentless that even after losing a limb, being blinded, and losing half of its head, the robot pup still comes after her. At this point, Bella realizes she has the choice to die by the hand of the robot or by her own. She chooses her own and we then find out that object three people died for, was a box of stuffed bears.
Slightly under the surface, we have a very tired narrative about the value of humanity, contrasted with the ruthless one-dimensional killing machines that took over the world. The same kind of narrative that can be seen in movies like Terminator, or movies like I Am Legend where the robots are replaced by zombies.
The principle remains the same, the neglect and fallacy of humans causing the apocalypse but the grace of humanity is what keeps us apart from the robots or zombies — a contradiction that has been explored to death in shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation or even Stargate.
The neglect and fallacy in Metalhead is that humans built a robotic guard dog that is way too smart and decides killing humans is a great idea. Bella is our beacon of humanity, so willing to sacrifice her own life and that of others to help an apparently sick family member.
If we scratch a little deeper on the surface of Metalhead, we can ask questions like: why black and white? Filming in black and white, at this stage in filming technology, is a very distinct choice.
It is often there to say something particular about the older films that had no choice but to be in black and white. For example, you can buy last year’s Logan (which won our Best Movie of the Year Award, by the way) in black and white because director James Mangold felt that the movie called back to the film noir genre. Schindler’s List used black and white to emphasize both past black and white dramas and the one color they did use.
Metalhead does none of those things. There is no callback to older classics, not even old sci-fi or horror films. There are a few similarities to later classics, like The Shining, but that was filmed in color.
No, Metalhead uses black and white to make the setting look bleak, to suck the color/hope/life out of the narrative. While juxtaposing the latter concepts with Bella’s fallible optimism and hope. When the use of black and white film is normally so much more powerful than this, it seems like Metalhead is something that is intentionally reaching for the shelf of classics it can’t reach.
That said, lets get down to what moral question Metalhead attempts to pose: was the stuffed bear really worth it? For some, the answer to this might depend on the situation, which isn’t at all clear in Metalhead. Was the sick person an adult? a child? What were they dying of? What did they mean to Bella? The episode is purposely unclear on this issue, as it is trying to say that details shouldn’t matter; your compassion for another human being should override circumstances.
Yet, when all three members of the mission die, was that compassion worth their deaths? Again, most people would prefer details on the matter before risking their lives, but this episode isn’t interested in those. Unfortunately, especially when human lives are concerned, it is not the devil in the details, but the circumstances in which your compassion will lies.
Metalhead is an episode that tries to be more than it is, reaching for a high bar without making sure the content can hold it up. There are some elements that work, like capturing the vast and empty landscapes of Dartmoor, or the wonderful acting of Maxine Peake as Bella.
It is the narrative and themes that fall drastically short, especially when previous episodes of Black Mirror, like White Bear or Hated in the Nation, actually strive to pose complicated moral questions in a very meaningful and fulfilling way.
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