Season 3, Episode 5
Men Against Fire
Directed by Jacob Verbruggen
Written by Charlie Brooker
There’s two things about Black Mirror that I know to be true, but am always pleasantly surprised by. First, their casts are diverse – with the majority of their episodes lead by women and people of colour. Secondly, I never really know where the story is going until I get there, but once do it all falls into place. ‘Men Against Fire’ begins like a strange mash-up of Starship Troopers and 28 Days Later, as Stripe (Malachi Kirby) sets off on his first mission as part of a military outfit. This “Roach Hunt” means the eradication of the pests that steal food, spread disease, and breed in the areas they infest – feral creatures, humanoid but with grotesque faces and sharpened teeth. Black Mirror continues to take these strange situations and ground them in a reality we know – and the way these soldiers talk about their work is reminiscent of the comradery in real military tours, with all the boasting, frustration, trauma and emotional damage that comes with it.
With all this in mind, it begins like a weaker episode for the series, but builds into one of its best. It has plenty of riveting themes and associative imagery to play with even before certain revelations are made. There are questions raised about eugenics, xenophobia, empathy, war, and the acceptance of information as doctrine. As a gamer (as is series creator and writer Charlie Brooker), one of the first things I noticed was how much of the action was shot from a first person perspective, with these creatures not too distant from the zombies and monsters that our video game avatars ruthlessly kill and maim. Fairly early on the morality of this is called into question, and the cleansing of zombies/vampires that we take for granted as acceptable in similar narratives is complicated.
Malachi Kirby is another star that hopefully blossoms from this show. His performances is understated, but when he suffers, we suffer with him. In addition, the supporting cast are solid – particularly Sarah Snook’s eerily heartless squad leader and his captivatin teammate played by Madeline Brewer. Brewer treads a fine line in portraying a caricature of the gung-ho cadet who revels in violence, yet comes out with something both nuanced and dynamic.
It wouldn’t be Black Mirror without some blurring of reality and technology, and this episode has some brilliant stuff going on. Director Jakob Verbruggen brings the interface of the military’s implants into the world in interesting ways, as well as making comments about our own interaction with technology with small visual moments. The only negative I have about the episode is that towards the end it becomes a little too didactic for my liking – but with such a delicate balance between exposition and ambiguity, it manages pretty well. On the whole, it does exactly what we want from Black Mirror – it delivers a completely new experience related to a familiar anxiety, one specific to this generation. It suggests caution in the face of those who sell the idea of connection and solidarity, but only isolate us further. For 2016, that’s as important a lesson as ever.
Featured Image: Netflix