The year 2011 saw innumerable technological advancements, from increasing popularity of smartphones to a significant influx of users on various new social media apps and platforms. The following years would bring even more expansions in the world of technology, including public drone usage, 3D printing, and, of course, digital government spying. In a world where such vast achievements seemed to inspire hope (save for the whole government spying thing), one British anthology series chose to dwell instead on the impending and often ignored phobia of a tech-heavy future that seemed only moments away.
It's been called The Twilight Zone for the Twitter generation, and this isn't a misnomer at all - Black Mirror is drenched in the same existential dread that so often accompanied an episode of the old black and white Rod Serling series. Subtract the frequent cheese of The Twilight Zone and add a level of outrageously realistic modern fear and you've got Black Mirror. Charlie Brooker's technophobic television series lasted two short seasons and a bleak Christmas special, but like most prematurely abandoned television series, it quickly gained a cult following. And like most cancelled cult television shows, Netflix was quick (well, maybe not that quick) to pick it up for a new season. The 21st of October, 2016, saw the release of this all new six-episode season.
While all six of these episodes (along with the show's previous episodes) are absolutely worth watching, some tend to be rooted in science fiction in lieu of horror. And since this is a website dedicated to the art of horror, I'll spend the next few paragraphs discussing the four particular episodes of Black Mirror season 3 that you just might be scared to watch.
Video games and horror is a match made in heaven. Ever since the dawn of the video game we have seen not only horror video games but movies either based on actual horror games (Silent Hill, Resident Evil, House of the Dead) or fictional ones (eXistenZ, Stay Alive, Gamer). When it comes to the latter, it can be argued that we've seen the same concept recycled over and over - a video game goes wrong and comes to life, killing everyone; a video game becomes too real, killing everyone; a video game simply kills everyone. Such movies also tend to play on our inherent fear not only of technology but of the uncanny valley virtual world inside every video game. Existentialism is the fulcrum of these flicks: as we question the reality of the virtual, we also begin to question our own reality. Is life nothing more than a fabricated simulation? Are we the Sims-esque creation of some gamer kid, constantly at his beck and call, rendering free will nothing more than a digital illusion? These morbid questions have been explored so often in cinema that genuine intellectuals like Elon Musk have suggested the distinct possibility of our reality being somebody else's simulated experience. The alarmingly daunting implications of that aside, Black Mirror's "Playtest" explores a different but equally horrific aspect of futuristic gaming by inventing a game that manifests all of your individual fears into a terrifyingly real virtual reality. This episode is Black Mirror at its finest - and scariest. The episode works as pure horror, even taking place inside a "haunted" house, and makes references to horror games such as Bioshock (Would you kindly…?). In a lot of ways it's David Fincher’s The Game if the game in The Game had been a video game (which, yeah, is a mouthful), by relentlessly throwing twist after twist at us, always keeping you guessing while your white fingers grip to the arms of your chair and your ass hinges on the edge of your seat. It's also the single most Twilight Zone-esque episode in the new season, offering us a dreary ending that could've been penned by the late Rod Serling himself.
The third episode of Black Mirror's third season proves to be more thriller than horror, but that doesn't mean it isn't scary. The episode explores a concept of which we've all become more than well aware over the past few years: invasion of digital privacy. It's a serious fear, and one that was once assumed to be nothing more than a wild conspiracy theory until recently. Once it was revealed that the National Security Agency essentially has the capability to read the e-mails and private messages of any American citizen, the fear began to grip a much wider audience. But while invasion of privacy is as real as it is frightening, the scariest part of "Shut Up and Dance" isn't necessarily the idea of somebody hacking into your webcam and watching your every move. The terror in this episode lies in its moral ambiguity: audiences have since discussed who the real good guys and bad guys of the episode are, and it can be argued that much like the way things are in the real world, it just isn't as black and white as that. While watching "Shut Up and Dance" you will find yourself pitying the alleged "protagonist" while ultimately resenting him. You'll admire the secret hacker(s) perpetrating the events of the episode while condemning their invasive techniques (and employment of an aged meme). The truth is, you won't know who to root for and who to boo, because there are no real good guys or bad guys. There are just people - people with unyielding flaws, deplorable characteristics, empathetic conditions, and unethical, questionable, but maybe justified actions. Justice and fairness don't necessarily exist in a world so much like our own, where the proposed heroes are quite possibly just as problematic as the villains.
While "Playtest" explored the terror of gaming inside the mind, "Men Against Fire" took it to a new level (stupid pun intended), delving into the militarization of video games. Although the "video game" in this episode isn't actually a video game at all, you'll notice more than a few parallels: there are several moments where the episode is even shown in first-person, much like most modern shooters. Like so many Black Mirror episodes, "Men Against Fire" deals with the fear of an overpowering, tyrannical government in a manner we've never really seen before. A futuristic military force spends its time hunting down deformed, rabid, beast-like diseased humans known as Roaches. The vile monsters are illustrated as a biological threat to humanity and must be exterminated like the vermin they apparently are. But as is always the case in a dystopian Black Mirror society, the veil is removed to reveal a sinister truth. Dismal and bleak all throughout, "Men Against Fire" is one of the best of the new season, albeit one of the most unrealistic from a technological standpoint. In spite of that, the episode is fundamentally rooted in war and violence through xenophobia, enveloping it in an unfortunate layer of realism. As if that isn't depressing enough, the episode culminates in a scene that presents the idea of forced though seemingly-voluntary ignorance which, against a devastatingly grim post-apocalyptic backdrop, makes "Men Against Fire" the worst best thing to watch this weekend.
Finally we come to the last episode of Black Mirror's new season, and, in my opinion, the best. Unlike the usual hour-long episodes, this one clocks in at almost ninety minutes, pretty much making it a feature length film - and it absolutely works as a standalone movie. If Bee Movie had been directed by Alfred Hitchcock and written with the dark existential intent of David Cronenberg, it would've been "Hated in the Nation," complete with Jerry Seinfeld voicing a mecha-bee. What's the deal with killer robot bees!?
The crime-drama genre takes a front seat in "Hated in the Nation," but the science-fiction and horror are still as abundant as ever. In a topical episode that could've also easily been a mid-21st century X-Files story, the government (of course) and a big tech industry have developed robotic autonomous bees to replace the dying bee population. These swarms have the ability to pollinate plants, build hives, and even reproduce (making honey, however, is not on the table). All of that sounds wonderful (if not a tad unnerving), except for the fact that this is a show about technophobia, and thusly the robo-bee technology is sure to backfire in a most horrific way. However, the eco-friendly technology of robotic pollination machines is surprisingly not the thing to fear in this episode: in fact, the whole thing is about the debilitating and deadly nature of callout culture in social media. A trending Twitter hashtag, #DeathTo, plays a big role in "Hated in the Nation," as thousands of social media users tweet the tag in relation to people they wouldn't mind seeing killed off. The idea of getting rid of the racists, the bigots, and the general assholes of this world doesn't seem too terrible, but once again the frustrating confusion of moral ambiguity comes into play. Who are we to play judge, jury, and executioner just because we dislike the views of somebody else? But simultaneously, is it really that bad to half-jokingly call for the death of a random person on the internet? Does doing so make one as guilty as he who commits the actual murder? The brilliance of "Hated in the Nation" - and Black Mirror as a whole - can be found in these posed questions of morality, ethics, and social justice. Where is the line? Who has the right to decide where the line is to be drawn? And at what point does free speech end and personal responsibility begin? While "Hated in the Nation" extensively covers these buzzworthy questions, the topic of government surveillance also comes up, as it is naturally revealed that the government has been using the robo-bees to keep an unblinking eye on the public. And while that might seem like a spoiler, in the words of the ever-impressive Kelly Macdonald, who plays one of the detectives investigating the ordeal: "The government's a cunt; we knew that already."
Black Mirror has a tendency to show us a highly plausible and terrifying future while examining social and political issues of the present. Callout culture, as it has come to be called, is a dangerous game, carelessly played way too often by young people who may or may not have killer intentions. Despite the alleged "joking" intent of those who engage in publicly shaming and even doxxing a person, the result is typically not favorable for anyone involved. And the result of the #DeathTo hashtag usage in "Hated in the Nation" is just as unfavorable as it is in the real world - and affects all parties. "Hated in the Nation" is a frightful cautionary tale and a jaw-dropping conclusion to the revived season of Black Mirror. Although it might be difficult for some of you to pause your Halloween horror movie binge-a-thon in order to enjoy a TV series, I can't help but recommend doing so for the third season of Black Mirror. And so I must ask in my best Atlas voice, would you kindly give this show a watch?