Netflix UK TV review: Black Mirror Season 3, Episode 2 (Playtest – spoilers)
Mark Harrison | On 22, Oct 2016
Warning: This contains spoilers. For our spoiler-free review of Black Mirror Season 3, click here.
Charlie Brooker has explained in the past that the titular Black Mirror is something you see everywhere – the “cold, shiny screen” of your phone or your tablet or your TV. The show has always been acclaimed for its ability to find horror stories in the reflections of that screen, but as Playtest demonstrates, certain advances in gaming don’t even require a screen any more.
American traveller Cooper (Wyatt Russell) is at the end of a globe-trotting tour when he discovers that his bank details have been pilfered somewhere along the way and he no longer has sufficient funds to get a plane ticket home. Stranded in London with his tech journalist hook-up Sonja (Hannah John-Kamen), he trawls through an odd jobs app to try and make some cash and finds an irresistible opportunity with a games developer.
Shou Saito (Ken Yamamura) is the designer of the groundbreaking horror game franchise Harlech Shadow, and he’s taken the survival genre to the next level with a piece of hardware that plugs into the player’s mind and actualises their worst fears. Cooper enthusiastically signs up to beta test the game, with only Shou’s assistant, Katie (Wunmi Mosaku), in his earpiece to guide him through the terrors that lie ahead.
Black Mirror’s most relevant forebear is The Twilight Zone, which often included episodes that built up to a big twist over a half-hour running time. Brooker has largely been good at disguising his twists while subtly foreshadowing them in the series to date, but Playtest is stretched by the number of twists it piles on, and also literally stretched by the freedom of running time afforded by Netflix. Together, this means there’s a lot to tee up and maybe too much time in which to do it – we’re enjoying the ad-free episodes, but this one would have been tighter on Channel 4.
There’s extra room for some clunky foreshadowing early on, which gives you a decent idea of how the pieces might fit together, including a groan-worthy use of a book about the singularity that’s just lying around Sonja’s flat. But to Brooker and director Dan Trachtenberg’s credit, Playtest doesn’t take exactly the route you’re expecting on the way to the inevitable destination. Plus, as in 10 Cloverfield Lane, Trachtenberg excels in a confined space and the Harlech lodge gives him a chance to do a raucous haunted house mini-movie.
Russell is terrific and charismatic all the way through, but he’s especially good at affecting Cooper’s raised heart rate and nervous rambling, as he is scared out of his mind by trifling things like spiders, high school bullies (and a nightmarish combination of both), before the game really gets all psychological. The long build-up serves the episode well in these parts, as Cooper’s mind turns on him and emotional terror replaces visceral gimmicks.
Trachtenberg got his break after directing a short film based on Portal and Brooker sharpened his acerbic style writing for PC Zone magazine in the mid-1990s, so they both know games. Between them, the writer and director are more than capable of delivering something that is both more game-savvy and more in line with The Cabin In The Woods than the mainstream “quiet, quiet, BOO” type of horror.
The densely layered reveals of simulations within simulations at the end of the story becomes an almost facetious retort to Black Mirror’s reputation for plot twists. Each reveal leads up to the ultimate twist that 0.04 seconds have passed in the real world, because an attempt at corporate espionage for Sonja has led to his entire brain being shorted out by signal interference from his phone.
Each ending to the lower levels of the simulation may be predictable because of some of the foreshadowing (the game giving him Alzheimer’s like his late father, a fake-out where he’s still in the simulation, etc.), but we couldn’t have guessed that they would all be piled on one after the other. The impact of the final cautionary tale turning out to be down to an electrical malfunction isn’t diluted by that build-up and proves that even when we think we know where this show is going, it’s capable of pulling a fast one on us.
In one slightly too long package, Playtest demonstrates the pros and cons of Black Mirror’s move to Netflix. The extended running time doesn’t do Brooker’s killer concept any favours, but the increased production value goes a long way towards covering the cracks. Trachtenberg, meanwhile, continues to show off his directorial flair for both horror and gaming logic – he’s surely destined to make the greatest video game movie of all time someday.
Whatever niggles we have in the cold light of day, this is an engaging survival horror story that is best enjoyed with the curtains drawn, in a dark, dark house. Unlike poor Cooper, at least you have that trusty black mirror between you and the mayhem.
Black Mirror Seasons 1 to 3 are now available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.