Nothing much happens in Metalhead, and we aren’t told much either – but that’s okay, because what we are given is a tense chase-scene, set in a bleak post-apocalyptic setting, told through a distinct visual style, with a sombre and harrowing ending, and a foreboding moral lesson.
As I said, Metalhead is lean on plot, but it tells a focussed tale where the pleasures are in the chase, rather than the complexities of the plot. A woman named Bella (Maxine Peake) and two other survivors are travelling to a warehouse in search of an item that is meant to ease the pain of another dying survivor, Jack. They are cautious of catching the attention of ‘dogs’, but while in the warehouse they find one hiding behind the box they are searching for (the dogs are revealed to be small hound-like robots). It emits a shell which explodes and sends shrapnel-like objects which embed themselves in Tony, and one in Bella. The dog then kills Tony (it shoots him in the head with some ballistic device) and Bella flees. The other survivor, Clarke, is also killed by the dog and it then pursues Bella.
What follows is a prolonged chase scene where Bella has to first remove the chip embedded in her leg (she has to cut it out), then has to spend a night in a tree (which the dog can’t reach as it lost an arm, and where it is also revealed that the dogs are solar-powered), and finally she holds out in a desecrated mansion. She spends some time there, retrieving a shotgun from the corpses of a dead couple (who seem to have committed suicide with it in their bedroom), and searching for the keys to their car.
Eventually, the dog returns and Bella lures it with music from the car, before shooting it twice with the shotgun (she only had two shells) and finishing it off. However, in a cruel twist, upon its death it emits another shell, this time embedding chips all over Bella – including one in her neck. Bella hence cannot cut out all the tracker-chips, and sends out a final radio message to the group of survivors she stays with. After sending her love to them all, she slits her throat while dozens of dogs swarm to her location. We are then treated to a final series of shots, panning over all the locations we’ve seen and showing the dogs rush in her direction (either attracted by the sound of the car, the mass of chips embedded in her, or some signal left by the dead dog). The final location we’re shown is the warehouse, and the episode closes as we see the box of items that were intended for the dying Jack – it was full of teddy-bears.
This episode’s biggest appeal was its black-and-white visual style, which I believe delivered. It certainly accentuated the bleak landscape and plot, and it served to cleanly set out the distinction between the innocent prey (white), and the merciless predators (black). We are essentially told that Bella’s efforts are hopeless from the beginning, but there is still hope in this tale. The quest for a teddy-bear to ease the suffering of a boy who has lost his one, and the fact that Bella proves that these dogs can be defeated and outsmarted in some ways, suggests a sprinkle of optimism for the future of this world, and sustains faith in humanity.
However, it is also humanity which most-definitely developed the ruinous technology we’re shown. Typically, Black Mirror episodes are able to and make a point of explaining the mechanics of their world/society through visual clues and dialogue. Metalhead subverts this entirely – it makes a point of not telling us anything, and thus much of the backstory to this post-apocalyptic tale is left to viewers. The most likely cause of this setting is, in my opinion, drone-warfare gone wrong. It’s easy to believe that once we develop fully-autonomous, smart, deadly, portable, agile drones, we’ll use them to conduct military operations. Perhaps these dogs were intended to hunt a certain type of enemy, but a glitch or problem with the detection algorithm led them to hunt all humans or living organisms, resulting in all civilisation being the target of these powerful, solar-powered mechanical creatures. Like I said, not much is revealed to us, but I think its plausible to assume people created autonomous killing devices which turned against their masters.
Then again, my largest criticism of the episode is unresolved questions. The survivors have numbers written on them, they have books full of codes and registries, there are ostensibly communities of survivors but the dogs are everywhere – we are told nothing about these brought up mechanics or details, and the episode falls short in making specific reference to things and never returning to them. I find that sloppy.
Moreover, when all was said and done I didn’t find anything truly inspiring or intriguing in the episode. The action is kind of cool, but it lacks depth, and the 40 minutes that we spend with Bella weren’t enough for me to develop any meaningful connection to her. Her death, as a result, had a neutral effect on me, and I’m sure other viewers might feel (or might have felt) the same.
Side Thoughts and Observations:
- I found it really cool how adaptable the dogs were: they could connect (through USB) to most devices, and then control them; they could replace arms with knives and use them to create sharp, drill-like appendages; they had power-saving mode.
- The dogs look scarily similar to the SpotMini robo-dog being developed by BostonDynamics – check it out below: