George Miller wanted to shoot Mad Max: Fury Road in black-and-white. As he explained in 2015, “One thing I’ve noticed is that the default position for everyone is to desaturate post-apocalyptic movies. There’s only two ways to go, make them black and white — the best version of this movie is black and white, but people reserve that for art movies now. The other version is to really go all-out on the color.” Miller eventually got his wish with the “Black & Chrome” edit that drains all of the oversaturated color from the theatrical cut, but Fury Road had to go with eye-popping oranges and teals for its initial run. The lower financial stakes of a Black Mirror episode, on the other hand, make selling such a conspicuously “arty” approach a somewhat more workable proposition.
“Metalhead” takes place in a dystopia not far removed from the arid Namibian deserts in which Miller mounted his berserk motor-opera. Life has been almost completely scrubbed from the barren landscape, though the series of events precipitating the mass extinction remain obscure. Beyond that, there’s plenty more we don’t know. A car carries three survivors on a mission to get medicine; who they are, where they’re coming from, and what happened to the pigs they mention that once filled the silos all remain mysteries. None of this matters. It’s extraneous information that would only get in the way of a story thriving on simplicity. All that matters is the present, defined early and succinctly through a single minimalist conflict: The robots are coming to kill you. Run.
Almost the entirety of “Metalhead” is contained within one extended chase scene, set in motion when the survivors’ delicate search through a warehouse activates a dormant automaton they refer to as a “dog.” Up to that moment, they have evinced a clear fear for a bugaboo they daren’t name, and the instant that the unnamed woman portrayed by Maxine Peake rouses the dog from sleep mode, their hysterical caution suddenly makes sense. The episode jumps from zero to 100 in seconds, as the dog promptly blows her companion’s head open like a rotten orange before locking on to her. So begins a pursuit of nightmarish proportions, in which an inexhaustible foe refuses to allow escape as an option.
The monochrome photography constitutes but one part of director David Slade’s larger and more complex visual assault. Handheld camerawork gives each shot a ragged, desperate feel, forcing the viewer to keep up with Peake as she sprints for her life. “Metalhead” also contrasts speeds to great dramatic effect in the opening salvo of this survival scramble, going from the hectic hurry of the group’s search for medicine (the fastness of which has been amplified by dropping frames, another trick from Miller’s Fury Road playbook) to the terrible grace of slow-mo. The dog’s first move upon being stirred is to pop a small pod into the air, which then blasts into fragments. Slade’s slow-motion shot captures the gruesome little details of this explosion, watching as the individual bits of shrapnel enter the skin of a man’s face. The slowed-down footage is good for savoring every tidbit of terror flitting across Peake’s face as she hauls ass out of there, too.
But she can’t shake the dog for long. Both in style and function, they’re exceptionally well-designed — when Apple unveils its first killing machine, the iMurder will probably look a lot like this. It’s got a sleek, featureless body, concealing firearms in its rounded legs. It can jack into and seize control of anything with a switchboard, and can even assimilate real-world items like knives. The buckshot stuck under Peake’s skin emits a tracking signal, leading the dog right to her wherever she goes. Every time she thinks she’s got enough space to take a breath or just sit down, it’s always close behind. The dog’s tirelessness makes it the most ruthlessly effective predator of all. Humans need food, water, and a little rest every now and then. All the dog needs is sun.
But for a moment, it looks like that might be enough for Peake to finagle an escape. The episode’s most breath-bating scene finds her cornered in the forest, stuck in a tree while the dog patiently waits below. For all of its technological advances, the dog simply cannot scale a tree, and for a moment, Peake can catch her breath. (There’s a wisp of dark humor in the fact that even a pinnacle of ingenuity is still prone to glitches and bugs, a funniness not unrelated to the aggravation of malfunctions on a newly purchased iPhone.) She figures out that she can drain the dog’s battery during the night, when its solar panels can’t recharge, by repeatedly tossing twigs at it to set off its motion sensors. When she succeeds in getting away, the terms of the clash between man and machine start to seem a bit more hopeful. The dog may be heavily armed, but humans have adaptability at their disposal. The ability to think outside of proscribed patterns is the only thing separating us from them, and even that’s not enough.
Spoiler alert: The dogs win. Peake manages to dispatch the model that’s hot on her tail, but as its dying act, it pops out another homing pod that explodes to beckon a horde of other dogs. Black Mirror favors the nihilistic downer ending, but in this instance, leaning into the bummer has a higher purpose. I started the episode thinking of the adrenaline highs of Fury Road, then ended it with memories of The Terminator, another work about a human run ragged by an android’s unceasing pursuit. But where the T-800 was intimidating, the dog is unassuming. Ahnuld had his bodybuilder’s physique, cool shades, and a leather jacket; the dog doesn’t even have a face. More chilling than anything is the indifference with which the dog hunts its target, nothing more than a program executing its desired function. It’s an idea that earns “Metalhead” a place alongside Anohni’s radical peace album, Hopelessness, in a small cadre of recent art that effectively communicates the cold horrors of drone warfare: When the automated innovations of war grow beyond our control, the deaths will be swift and impersonal.
The episode ends with a long aerial shot over the chase’s aftermath that impotently reveals what Peake and her slain companions had hoped to find: not medicine, but a teddy bear to put a smile on the face of a child. While their mission was a failure, ending on that note suggests the paramount importance of hope as something worth risking life and limb for. Most episodes of Black Mirror posit themselves as cautionary tales, and yet “Metalhead” is one of the few in which all of the alarmism feels merited. Drones represent a far more present danger to humanity than, say, Tinder, and ensconcing a last-ditch warning about them in an hour so determinedly disturbing is apropos. The child will never get the teddy bear, but there’s still hope for us.