Warning: This contains spoilers for Metalhead. Not seen Episode 5 of Black Mirror Season 4? Read our spoiler-free review of the whole season.
Robot dogs. That’s all you need to know about the fifth episode of Black Mirror Season 4. Charlie Brooker’s series has made a name for itself with its delicate balance of disturbing horror and dark humour, social satire and wicked logic, technological breakthroughs and human consequences.
Metalhead doesn’t bother with any of that, opting instead for a straight-up shot of adrenaline. Clocking in at 40 minutes, it’s a ride that doesn’t let up, and a reminder that Black Mirror is trying to do more than topical prestige drama: Halt and Catch Fire this ain’t. This is Charlie Brooker looking to mess with your head in any genre available.
There’s a refreshing rush to that approach, as Black Mirror’s fourth season tries to experiment with form and style. Hard Cardy helmer David Slade dives right into it, directing the mini-slasher movie with a black-and-white intensity that feels like nothing else the show has done before. Like its sleek yet blunt title, Slade serves up the stripped-down tale with slick style and a brutal line in violence.
That comes courtesy of the robot dog, which we meet within minutes, as we follow a small group breaking into a warehouse in a desolate post-apocalyptic Britain. But it’s not until too late that they realise an electrical mutt is lying in wait indoors, and it springs out from between the cardboard boxes with a ruthless agility. That initial encounter plays out in jaw-dropping slow-motion, boxes, limbs and bullets flying everywhere. But these aren’t normal billets; they’re tracking devices that ingrain themselves in their targets – a grim introduction to the many nasty tricks hidden up these canine sleeves.
The humans fall one by one, as you’d expect from your typical slasher, but what impresses is the variety of set pieces on offer, with room for a car chase that unfolds on a brilliantly low-key scale. Our Final Girl, meanwhile, emerges as Maxine Peake’s Bella, who struggles through each barbaric new obstacle. A lot of it hinges on Peake, and her performance is superb, balancing likeable grit with painful determination. Despite a lack of dialogue, there’s just enough charisma to her mettle to make you root for her, even as you dread every new injury that her survival entails – her physicality does a lot of the hard work, as we see her patiently hide up a tree and smartly use pebbles to create what’s essentially white noise to send the dog to sleep.
Slade’s use of sound is just an impressive; he has an ear for building suspense, from the tap of those tiny rocks to the noise of the dog’s internal radar tracking and the whirring of its joints. He swaps the ambient noise of the outside environment for an even quieter house, as Bella heads to an abandoned luxury compound for safety. As the dog catches up with her – and, in one break bit of humour, inserts a kitchen knife in its limb to make up for a lost foot – Slade slowly brings the antagonists together, using the eerie clank of the dog’s unhurried steps to set your nerves on edge.
The script does an excellent job of creating a sense of malevolence to the beast, even though it doesn’t have eyes or a face. It’s mechanically efficient in its escalation of threat and reduction of human collateral, using that slim runtime to great effect. But then comes the ending and, well, it just ends. After 40 minutes of genuine tension, the story comes to a halt, leaving Bella surrounded and panning back to the factory to see what caused all this carnage in the first place. The answer? A teddy bear for her son. One of the few teddy bears left, the screenplay implies. It’s a typically wry attempt to bring a sharp sting to the tale, but it’s too little too late, landing with a unfortunately hollow anticlimax.
It’s not dissimilar to Season 3’s Shut Up and Dance, directed with equally breakneck speed by James Watkins, which never found the substance to back up its visceral surface. Where that felt misjudged, this is a more commendable experiment in genre and format that proves Black Mirror can play down and dirty when it wants. Searching for a message beyond that may prove futile – there’s something chilling in the callous, inhuman way that a computerised security system doesn’t bother to distinguish between hardcore criminals and petty burglars pilfering a stuffed toy – but not since Dead Set has Charlie Brooker’s writing felt so lean and mean.
Black Mirror Season 4 is available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription.