Black Mirror: White Christmas
BLACK MIRROR IS BACK! This year in one epic episode rather than the usual 3. But it is one to watch!
Black Mirror one-shot special is about as festive as being bludgeoned to death by a stocking full of coal, but it’s also an unerringly brilliant piece of lo-fi sci-fi.
Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall headline the tense, movie-length outing, which weaves together three related tales of technological peril. Brooker is on fine satirical form throughout, tearing into everything from social media and online privacy to personal privilege and the implications of artificial intelligence.
As Matt (Hamm) and Joe (Spall) prepare for a lonely Christmas in each other’s company after years spent working at an isolated outpost together, they recount what brought them to their lonely vigil. In the first segment, we see Matt ran a remote dating service as a hobby, guiding less-than-savvy blokes through the rigours of pulling. Harry (Rasmus Hardiker) walks into an office Christmas party — one of many seasonal traditions torn apart during the course of this special — with the intent of meeting a girl. Using Z-Eyes, an augmentation so ubiquitous that they’ve replaced smartphones, he streams his encounters to Matt and reacts to the advice given. Unfortunately, the target of his attentions has voices in her own head, but not of the technological kind.
Here it’s live streaming and pick-up artists that get the brunt of Brooker’s ire — the latter a timely target, given the UK’s refusal to allow Julien Blanc into the country. Harry strikes a balance between a lovable loser genuinely unaware of how to speak to women and a “nice guy” who sees them as little more than a challenge. The voyeuristic element is perhaps more unsettling, with a whole group of onlookers watching his efforts, the echo chamber of the internet given voice at their misogynistic worst. Even as the tragic outcome of Harry’s “date” unfolds, they’re braying to see tits rather than caring about the horrible reality unfolding before them.
This segues into the second story, and a recounting of Matt’s actual job. Along with Z-eyes, another disturbing advancement in biotech predicted by Brooker is Cookies. Not the online data storage, but rather the ultimate PDA: you, or rather a back-up of your entire personality. Oona Chaplin plays Greta, a wealthy, demanding woman who has a Cookie made, meant to run her glamorous home. Matt’s work is a cross between technical support and professional torturer, breaking the spirit of these virtual copies by isolating them in a digital void until they’re so desperate for interaction they accept their slave roles. Is it torture, if the intelligence recognises its own existence? Or is it software personalisation, tweaking the settings of an AI with ideas above its station? If you copy your mind, does the back-up count as a person? It’s a chilling consideration.
Chaplin impresses with both her cold, spoilt take on “real” Greta and the increasingly frenzied, desperate back-up. Her performance really carries the story which, as the shortest also feels the most simplistic.
Joe, quiet and standoffish to this point, takes the focus for the finale, with a morally grey tale taking in heavy topics such as abortion, freedom of choice, parental rights, obsession and jealousy. A relationship with Bethany (Janet Montgomery) sours after she falls pregnant and declares she doesn’t want to keep the baby. The argument that ensues leads to her blocking Joe — another feature of the Z-eyes recurrent through White Christmas, where users are prevented from interacting, seeing only a sickly white blur and hearing a droning sound instead of words. Yet keep the baby she does, leading to years of distant observations on Joe’s part, born from a desperate need to see his child.
The cruelty of Brooker’s writing is most brutally delivered here, with the idea of blocking extending to offspring. Imagine the pain of watching your child grow up, never allowed to meet and never seeing their face — only that maddening blur. Even memories are tainted, with photos of Beth obsuring her image. Spall convincingly presents a man whose entire sense of self collapses.
While we can feel sympathy for Joe and, to a lesser extent, Matt, they’re also presented as architects of their own downfall. Foolishness and fixation brought them to the bleak, icy outpost that houses their dim and dingy Christmas, and it would be easy to strip the sci-fi aspects of Z-Eyes and Cookies and people-blocking and still have a competent, dark drama. That’s always been the great success of Black Mirror though, taking the fears and anxieties of how technology and communications affects human interactions and ratcheting them up to breaking point. With all the expectations surrounding Christmas — that people should magically get along, that we should be happy, that everything should just magically fall into place and it’s a wonderful life after all — the darkness at the heart of this White Christmas is magnified even further.
Throughout, director Carl Tibbetts keeps things as visually tight as Brooker’s scripting is dark. The cabin where Matt and Joe are conversing becomes increasingly claustrophobic each time we return to the framing sequence, while sundry visual clues as to the interconnectedness of the protagonists’ lives are masterfully placed throughout. The white of the title becomes motif, from the frigid landscapes to the sterility of locations, such as Greta’s AI-enslaving home, a none-too-subtle reminder that while Christmas is “supposed” to be warm and cheery, it also takes place in the depths of winter.
Black Mirror once again lives up to its name, reflecting our everyday lives and uses of technology back at us. Brooker dares us to deny we don’t, or wouldn’t act exactly the same as his flawed characters in the same situations; that we’re not becoming as detached from society because of rampant tech addiction. With White Christmas as an example, it’s hard to argue anyone wouldn’t, or that they’re not. Superb television, if a little dispiriting.