Warning Spoilers Ahead
The fifth episode of Black Mirror is a film of elegant simplicity with a subtle brilliance that is easily overlooked by the casual viewer. At only 41 minutes long, Metalhead is the shortest episode of Black Mirror to date, yet it manages to pack in more action, suspense and complex undertones than most features.
Metalhead perfectly embodies the storytelling principal of “show, don’t tell”. As the opening shot pans across a desolate landscape filmed in breathtaking high contrast black and white we instantly know this is a post apocalyptic world. Less than three minutes of banter tells us who our characters are. Tony is a reserved stoic, Clarke a joker, but also a bit neurotic, even cowardly, and then there’s our heroine Bella. She’s a natural leader, tough, resourceful, true to her word and on top of that she has a sense of humor, a rare commodity in a hopeless world.
The story wisely conceals what exactly they’re up to, but they’re clearly on a supply run and their main objective is to get something to fulfill a promise to Bella’s sister. We know that someone she cares about is dying and there’s something in that warehouse which will make that easier on him. The likely first guess is that this person, “Jack” as he’s later called is married to Bella’s sister and they’re after some sort of medicine to ease his pain. This is an intentional omission, which ultimately makes a powerful point at the story’s climax.
When our antagonist bursts onto the scene the world is fleshed out even further. I have never seen a fictional robot quite as exquisitely designed as the “dog” from Metal head. It’s lupine stance clashes with it’s beetle-like armored shell giving it a threatening alien appearance. It’s angular forms remind one of a stealth aircraft. There’s a clear military look and we can readily determine this thing is designed to kill and very difficult to destroy. The dog’s debuted scene delivers a one two punch of intensity, action and suspense making for an adrenaline fueled mix of thrills and terror to rival any Hollywood blockbuster.
What’s truly astounding about the dog is how realistic it is. Past killer robots have been designed for looks with engineering as an afterthought at best. The dog on the other hand looks like something roboticists could build tomorrow if they put their minds to it. Every aspect is functional from it’s multi-pinned probe which can hack everything from a gate to a van to it’s quadruped design, obviously inspired by Boston Dynamics robots like the SpotMini. The designers put such attention to detail into the dog that they even devised a specific way for it to turn over after being knocked on its side. At times it becomes a bit obvious that the machine is CGI but for the most part the monochrome style helps it fit into the scene.
As this technological menace tears through Tony and Clarke many questions are cleared up as to just what sort of world we’re dealing with. The AI apocalypse concept should be familiar enough that it needs no further explanation. We don’t know exactly how humanity reached this point and that’s all right, our protagonists may not know themselves. The story chooses not to focus not on larger then life hero's taking down Skynet or what have you but ordinary people just trying to survive. This is rare approach when it comes to technological doomsday stories, which makes Metalhead all the more unique.
With Tony and Clarke gone Bella is left on the run, wounded with no transportation or weapons. She can’t hope to fight the dog, or outrun it, so her only hope is to try and outsmart it and outsmart it she does, time and again. Yet for all her clever deceptions it keeps coming, relentless as ever. Every stage of the sequence is unique and impeccably paced. There's no repetition of the same scenario and, no filler scenes.
On top of that the conflict doesn’t skip on character moments. At times the dog almost seems to have a personality. It can seem eager and excited, or determined or frustrated, but in the end it doesn’t feel anything. Ultimately we are projecting our own human emotions onto an emotionless machine. Our heroine does the same. She shouts at the dog, tries taunt it, but in the end we know it feels nothing, Bella isn’t antagonizing her opponent, her mockery is purely self-serving. It keeps her spirits up in the midst of a desperate struggle.
These elements complement the story’s climax. Metalhead concludes with a sort of “empty victory” as is common in Black Mirror stories. Bella kills the dog, but is peppered by tracking devices. She knows more dogs will eventually come for her, so she says her goodbyes over the radio, apologizes to her sister for failing to help Jack and takes her own life.
In the closing scene we pan through a world crawling with dogs. The setting feels bleaker than ever as we see just how much they’ve come to dominate the world. The shot traces it’s way across the landscape, retracing Bella’s route until it arrives at last at the very box Tony was holding when he stumbled upon the dog, the one that contained the very thing they were looking for.
The box was filed with teddy bears. Jack isn’t Bella’s brother in law, he's her young nephew. There’s more to this than just an effort to end with the twist of the knife. The entire preceding sequence creates an overwhelming sense that these machines will ultimately win and in the end there will be no one left who can think and feel and love, no one that would risk their life just to comfort a dying child, no humanity.