The third season of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror, a Twilight Zone-esque anthology TV series about technological anxieties and possible futures, was released on Netflix on October 21st. It's the first season of the show produced by Netflix, after two three-episode series and a special produced by Britain's Channel 4. In this series, six writers will look at each of the third season's six episodes to see what they have to say about current culture and projected fears. Episode 1 is here.**Warning: spoilers ahead.**
This year, virtual reality headsets finally started shipping to consumers en masse, but there’s no denying that we’re still in the Wild West when it comes to content. 360-degree movies, experimental shorts, first-person games that turn players into Bruce Wayne — if there’s an idea out there, odds are that somebody has tried it. Because when nobody knows what the future of immersive entertainment is going to bring, the only option is to experiment and see what sticks.
8-bit AR turns into virtual horror
Except for one genre: horror. The chance to take over a player's senses gives designers a tremendous opportunity to terrify their targets. The concern, of course, is that things could go too far — particularly for nascent mediums like VR and AR, which haven’t been around long enough to widely adopt their own self-policing ethical standards. That’s the timely hook that Black Mirror tackles with "Playtest," which follows an American named Cooper (Wyatt Russell, showing the same goofy charm he did in Everybody Wants Some!!) who's been trotting the globe as he struggles with his father's death. Low on funds in the UK, Cooper takes a quickie gig as a playtester for SaitoGemu, a well-known horror publisher rumored to be working on a mysterious, revolutionary system.
Black Mirror wouldn't be itself if it didn't introduce some creepy, pervasive new technology, and "Playtest" doesn’t disappoint. It turns out that SaitoGemu is working on an implant that essentially functions as the ultimate augmented reality device, with the ability to layer lifelike images and sounds into Cooper’s perception of the world without the need for wires or glasses. The AR experiment starts simply enough, with an 8-bit whack-a-mole game, but after that, it’s time to move Cooper up to the big leagues, and the team lets him play a new horror game that custom generates its terrors based upon the player’s own internal thoughts and fears.
Director Dan Trachtenberg demonstrated with this year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane that he’s a studied expert in genre conventions, and those skills are on full display in "Playtest." First and foremost, this is a horror movie, and once Cooper is stranded at a creepy old house for the game, Trachtenberg expertly works his camera (and audience expectations) to drop viewers right in the middle of Cooper’s own personal nightmare. There are slow-burn creep-outs and perfectly timed jump scares, each a manifestation of some fear or trauma from Cooper’s past. It’s a Halloween roller coaster ride, but that’s only half the fun. Soon, Cooper starts to wonder where the game ends and his own reality begins, and whether SaitoGemu might have more sinister motives in mind.
A reminder (and warning) of immersive entertainment's incredible future
At its best, "Playtest" is a promise of the incredible future of immersive entertainment waiting for us down the line. (Given the recent uptick in escape rooms, extreme haunted houses, and interactive theater productions, it seems to be a promise audiences are eager to see fulfilled.) And if you squint, there’s a critical throughline there about the dangers of ceding control of our senses to game developers and filmmakers. It’s an important point, and an idea we’ll need to grapple with as augmented reality and virtual reality become a bigger part of our daily lives. Notions of agency and presence — the holy grail for mediums like these — are a tricky topic, because the things that allow us to seamlessly travel into artificial worlds are the exact same things that could let players disassociate from their own realities, or get sucked into fictional worlds that they find superior to mundane life.
Unfortunately, "Playtest" never digs particularly deep. As the episode wears on, it becomes increasingly focused on the nesting-doll nature of Cooper’s reality, turning the episode into an endurance test of what-is-real fake-out endings. Every false resolution brings a slightly tweaked theme to the table: the ethics of corporate bio-experimentation, the importance of making peace with family, our lifestyle obsession with digital screens, even — I’m not joking here — the dangers of smartphone signal interference. Too many ideas get crammed into Brooker’s script, and the final takeaway is muted frustration rather than the crisp, ironic "Ahhh!" the episode is so clearly aiming for.
That isn't a new problem for Black Mirror. For every episode of the show that's fantastically resonant, there’s one (or more) that disappears down a rabbit hole of its own futuristic spitballing. It’s a question of focus, as if Brooker is so excited to play with this wild variety of ideas that the idea of crafting a single resonant story gets left by the wayside. But there's still great fun in the journey, and the haunted house joyride of "Playtest" offers a pleasant (and funny) departure from the show’s usual unbearable intensity. And let’s be honest: horrible, Outer Limits-style ramifications or not, we’ll all be lining up when the SaitoGemu system finally becomes reality.
Relevance: High. There’s arguably no bigger story in technology and entertainment right now than the emergence of virtual reality and augmented reality, and "Playtest" envisions what is in many ways the ultimate idealization of this technology. Mix in the body horror of an implant doing things to us that we can’t control, and the episode tackles tomorrow’s fears as well. The fact that the episode doesn’t pack a bigger punch when it comes to both topics only speaks to how muddled its message gets along the way.
Aesthetics: Haunting. (Okay, that was cheap and literal, but sue me.) Trachtenberg’s vision of the future is gorgeous, full of all-white rooms and silent worker bees tapping away dutifully behind minimalist visor displays. Then when Cooper starts the video game, Trachtenberg slides into full gothic-horror mode, with the dark, moody interior of the mansion and its authentic scares coming off like a horror video game designed by Guillermo del Toro.
Squirm factor: Grotesque, and in the best possible way. While the episode focuses primarily on a slow-burn of mounting tension, when Cooper’s mind conjures up a massive spider with a human face, it’s hard to not just curl up in a ball in the corner of whatever room you’re watching in. It’s also impossible to not see the design of the horrific spider-creature as a nod to Rob Bottin’s legendary work in The Thing — which just so happened to star Wyatt Russell’s father, Kurt.