Black Mirror: Metalhead

“Metalhead” is a short horror film; or a “thriller” if one wants to debate that terminology. It is reminiscent of a film such as Alien, insofar as it presents a being that is strikingly other and bent on killing everyone. In fact, though, the “dog” in this episode may take things a step further, since one could argue that xenomorphs are driven by something like a biological imperative. This is clearly not the case when it comes to the wholly mechanical, though wildly intelligent, dog.

The episode is shot in grayscale, which adds to its general bleakness, and is scored in a minimalist style. It is mostly silent, in fact, but for the moments when shrieking strings come in to accentuate a moment of tension, or those of sparse dialogue.

Cinematically, it is successful. We follow our protagonist Bella from the ill-fated attempt to raid a warehouse – which resulted in the death of both of her compatriots – through a harrowing series of events with regard to trying to escape from the dog. The backstory is not given, but left to the viewer’s speculation.

There is the conversation between Bella, Tony, and Clarke that opens the episode, about pigs, for example. Apparently they are all dead now. Bella is trying, throughout the episode. to make it back to some kind of safe haven. She communicates with someone there, or tries to, on her walkie-talkie. But apparently the dog can track her on the basis of that, too, and not just the shrapnel tracker we see more than once over the course of the episode.

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These robots seem to be a weaponized version of the dog robots currently being made by Boston Dynamics. What is the point of these? And why are they programming them to fight back against human resistance?

It would seem that the answer is that they want to see if they can do it. But it is this very impetus to drive technology forward on the basis of the question as to whether we can that “Metalhead” calls into question. Of course such technology would be, or will be, weaponized. All technology is, if it’s possible.

So, the shape of the background world of “Metalhead” becomes somewhat clear. The tech being created by Boston Dynamics (and the reference seems clear enough here I don’t feel the need to hedge) gives rise to these dogs deployed as instruments of war. They have an arm equipped with a gun, but also the ability to detach that and pick up a knife or whatever. They are programmed with a singular purpose: to kill. And, at first, surely, were only meant to kill particular human beings, but they have now run amok. They aim to kill any living thing they get their sights on.

Bella manages to defeat the dog that has been after her throughout the episode, but upon its destruction it releases a tracker grenade. The shrapnel embeds in Bella’s skin, as it did earlier in the hour, but this time it is on her face. She prepares to dig these shards out with a knife, as she had the one in her leg previously, before noticing that one is on her throat. Thus, this is the end for Bella. Dogs move in on her position from far and wide, and it would seem that she slits her own throat instead of falling prey to them.

We never see those to whom she was trying to return, though the closing shots do inform us that what she was after in the warehouse was a stuffed bear. One can infer that this was intended to be given to a terminally ill child, in order replace one that he had somehow lost. What is striking about this is its plausibility. Of course, it would not make rational sense to risk one’s life in order to get a child a teddy bear, but the desire to try to do anything in order to ease the pain of dying child is all too human. Bella’s team may have been looking to take other resources from the warehouse, but it seems clear that the bear was the main thing. How does one judge the sentimentality involved in this plan?

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Overall, “Metalhead” is distinctive insofar as it compels thought more in terms that are directly related to the story (what exactly happened to make the world turn out like this?) than it does in ways that move beyond it. Nonetheless, it is an intense hour of television that should get us thinking about how artificially intelligent technology could turn on us. It is hardly the first work of fiction to do that, but I am hard-pressed to think of another vision that is quite so bleak; where the AI in question is so inhuman.

I have always found this to be a part of the power of Alien. The alien is what is other; that’s all the term means. We have come to use it as a shorthand for the idea of species from outer space, which of course the xenomorph in Alien is, but this being is also profoundly different from us. Its blood is acid, for example. The radical alterity of this “strange form” adds to the horror of the human encounter with it. In “Metalhead,” on the other hand, the form of the monster is not strange, but familiar: it is a robot dog. Thus rather than confronting us with radical alterity, Black Mirror confronts us with us with something uncanny.

This makes the relentlessness of this killing machine all the more disturbing. Clearly created in the image of a friend, the dog has turned against us. To what extent is this an allegory for technology itself? It is created to help, but may ultimately kill. Is it OK to be a Luddite?


 

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