Despite the intriguing concept and some well-handled direction, this effort registers the episode as one of the weakest yet.
Charlie Brooker’s third foray into the dark abyss of technology has made the well-earned jump from Channel 4 to Netflix, and for the most part, is better for it. With the move came the promise of higher production values, a larger range of acting talent, and somewhat more freedom. Tackling a range of subject matters from the obsession of maintaining an online persona to the dangerous dark alleys of online trolling, Black Mirror’s third series has attempted to tackle them head on… with varying degrees of success. Following what is possibly the most beautifully shot and realized story that Brooker has produced yet (‘San Junipero’, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis), ‘Men Against Fire’ proves that not everything the show attempts to pull off is as great.
Set in the near future, the series’ penultimate episode follows the story of a society which is divided. Following an unexplained epidemic/pandemic, some of the population have contracted a disease which turns them into ravenous zombie-like beasts. Our focus is on a duo of soldiers, Stripe (Malachi Kirby) and Raiman (Madeline Brewer), who’ve been tasked with a recon mission after a village claims they’ve been attacked by these beasts. After a dangerous encounter, Stripe begins to experience some strange technological difficulties, leading him to question the nature of his duty.
As with most of the other episodes, there is a significant hook that for the purposes of this review I won’t explicitly spoil. The twist is unfortunately is the main flaw and reason the episode falls flat. However, what this episode does do well (something that Black Mirror continually succeeds at) is that it sets up a world that’s scarily tangible. The comparisons between the world that the episode presents and that of our own are so astutely realised that you are drawn intensely into the narrative. The previously mentioned production values come out in full force in setting up a society which, although I’d say isn’t much more advanced than our own, is technologically superior. The soldier’s ‘implant’, which they frequently use whilst they are training and out in the field, is shrewdly created, doesn’t feel too high concept, and whilst in use, actually produces quite an eerie, unsettling look. Likewise, the weapons and the facilities, whilst hinting at the advancement in technology, doesn’t feel like it’s far off from our own.
Thankfully, the episode is directed with a degree of confidence by Jakub Verbruggen (who’s work on shows like The Fall, House of Cards and The Bridge, making him a reliably strong choice). He presents his action scenes competently, if a tad generically, but some of the shots he does come out with will definitely stay with you, especially the final shot, which is heartbreaking. Equally strong, Malachi Kirby brilliantly captures the nervousness and fear of going out into the field for the first time as Stripe. As the episode progresses, his canvas widens; he nails every emotion that comes his way, from excitement and confidence, to being conflicted and confused. The realisation of the terrible lie he has been fed is believably portrayed and executed. The other standout performance in this episode comes from Michael Kelly, in a deliciously sinister supporting role. Acting as a psychological consultant, Kelly’s Arquette is calm but quietly unsettling. However, some of the other performances are lacking. Sarah Snook is horribly miscast as Strike’s tough-as-nails Sergeant, and Madeline Brewer as his fellow soldier is over zealous in her attempts to portray a recruit whose insatiable lust to hunt and kill the enemy overrides her judgement.
The biggest problem with this episode however is that whilst the set up is great, and it more or less overcomes the clichés that come with a military story (fresh recruit, bloodthirsty squad members, hard-ass Sergeant etc), the underlying allegory is too ‘on the nose’. Whereas past episodes such as ‘The Waldo Moment’ (an unfairly underrated episode), ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, and this season’s ‘Nosedive’, present parallels with our society which are recognisable yet ingeniously realised and horribly true, ‘Men Against Fire’ is a comparison which is not necessarily smart or astute. Brooker’s show has always portrayed people being the victims of technology, before turning the tables and showing us that we are the problem, the architects of our own downfall. When we reach the end of the episode, we’re left with the odd sensation of actually feeling sorry for the main character, essentially blameless in his actions. This conundrum, along with its underlying message, is the downfall of the episode – a shame considering how much it had going for itself.
All six episodes of Series 3 of Black Mirror can be found on Netflix. You can also catch up on the first two series, which originally aired on Channel 4.