There is every possibility we may look back upon Bandersnatch, the latest episode of Black Mirror, and be amazed at just what a pioneer it was.
Black Mirror has seeped into popular culture in a remarkable way since Charlie Brooker moved from being one of TV’s most entertaining cult comedians, when it comes to analysing popular media, and into the realm of writing and producing what could be the most innovative and format breaking television show of the modern age. Black Mirror has come a long way since its first Channel Four episode, telling the disturbing story of a David Cameron-parody being blackmailed into having sex with a pig live on television.
What began as a darkly comic examination of our evolving relationship with new media, akin to Brooker’s earlier scripted series Dead Set (zombies meets Big Brother), has grown into a 21st century Twilight Zone; a dark, indeed black mirror for our own fears, anxieties and cautionary tales about the technology we are allowing to dominate and consume our lives. While Brooker’s show, on being snapped up in a savvy move by Netflix and getting a hefty budget increase in the bargain, has benefited from A-list movie stars and directors wanting to be involved, the modern day Rod Serling has always had one eye on the past as he puts one foot in the future.
Bandersnatch feels like the ultimate realisation of Brooker’s fascination with retro 1980’s and 1990’s culture, particularly gaming culture. Fionn Whitehead’s troubled protagonist Stefan Butler could be Brooker in another, alternate life.
WILLIAM: I know the truth can only come from my father, a man I’ve only seen in my visions, but who I already know I hate…
How do you end The X-Files? This is a question fans have been asking themselves for quarter of a century, ever since Chris Carter’s show premiered in 1993 on the FOX network and helped define popular culture across the entire decade. ‘My Struggle IV’ proves, without any shadow of a doubt, that the truth is you don’t. The X-Files is a phenomenon that will never truly come to a close.
Season 11 of The X-Files has been overshadowed, to some degree, by Gillian Anderson’s announcement last October—with several months of shooting left to go—that this was her final go around playing FBI agent Dana Scully, the role she will be immortalised for, as much as David Duchovny will never truly escape her partner, FBI maverick Fox Mulder. Anderson stayed with the original series longer than Duchovny—who jumped ship as a forefront character at the end of the seventh season—so it’s difficult to truly blame her for deciding, after twenty-five years living the part even in the long period she didn’t play her, that Anderson wanted an end for Scully. The revival series, which arrived in 2016 on the trail of a nostalgic comeback tour for various TV shows which were iconic in the days before streaming and cable changed the paradigm of television, was one millions of fans hoped would provide some sense of closure.
The end of the original series, Season 9’s ‘The Truth’, came as a disappointment to many fans at the time. Contextualising a mythology many had (falsely) claimed made no sense, and reintroducing the long-absent Mulder, made what fans hoped was a climactic thrill ride for the alien mythology more like a clip show, with an ending that reflected the ‘Pilot’ but left Mulder & Scully in nebulous waters; were they fugitives? Were they out of the FBI? Were the X-Files shut down? What about Agents Doggett & Reyes, who had taken over the department and failed conceptually to replace the dynamic duo we had followed for seven seasons together? Were the aliens still about to invade? So many questions were left unanswered, far more indeed than ‘My Struggle IV’ has left unanswered – and this latest attempt at a finale is, in all honesty, no real *finale* at all.
MULDER: We need to be better teachers.
The X-Files has always been interested in technology, right from the word go, and ‘Rm9sbg93zxjz’ (which we will henceforth refer to as its translation, ‘Followers’) feels like the ultimate, final (if this is to be the last season) encapsulation of our pervasive anxiety around surrendering our world to artificial intelligence. More than any other X-File that concerns AI, it serves as a potent cautionary tale.
Much has been made about how the second revival season of Chris Carter’s seminal series owes a debt to Charlie Brooker’s modern science-fiction anthology show Black Mirror. ‘Followers’, honestly, could have been an episode of Brooker’s series, a show which absolutely owes a debt to the stylistics and conceptual ideas put in place over the last quarter-century by The X-Files.
Carter’s show has, in many ways, come full circle in many aspects across Season 11, and ‘Followers’ truly embraces and explores our combination of social media, applications which track our movements and allow us quick and easy access to everything from dining to transport to home appliances, and the accursed addiction to the ‘black mirrors’ of our ‘smart’ technology. It suggests, as many cautionary tales about modern technology do, that this obsession may be far from a good thing.
The tagline for Mute is “he doesn’t need words”. Honestly, the same can’t be said for the audience watching Duncan Jones’ latest picture.
Mute is either surprising or possibly to be expected, depending on where you stand on Jones as a filmmaker. Removing the interesting fact that he’s the son of David Bowie, Jones comes across as a nice guy of cinema. He’s active on social media and welcoming and friendly to his audience, often sharing storyboards and nuggets of detail about his upcoming movies. Yet he’s been on something of a downward curve over the past couple of years. Warcraft, his take on the world-renowned MMORPG World of Warcraft, was a painfully dull mess of an adaptation. Mute takes him back to his original screenplay roots but, sadly, said dullness appears to have followed him from the unsuccessful swords and sorcery blockbuster.
There is almost certainly a reason why filmmakers don’t traditionally set movies around protagonists who don’t talk, and Mute exemplifies that singular problem. Alexander Skarsgard is Leo, a bartender in a ‘future-punk’ Berlin who also happens to be mute following a boating accident as a child, falls in love with Naadirah, an exotic young woman who works at the same club. When she disappears, so begins a hunt across the skyscraper-filled metropolis by Leo to track her down, facing a range of eccentrics, weirdos, gangsters (such as Paul Rudd’s Cactus Bill) and paedophiles (his brother Duck, played by Justin Theroux) along the way. Such a synopsis makes Mute sound, however, much more engaging than Jones’ meandering, listless and unformed script delivers in reality. From early on, Mute doesn’t seem to have any idea of its own identity.
One suspects in the future, when people talk about The Cloverfield Paradox, they may wonder if the title was intentionally ironic. The paradox of Julius Onah’s picture doesn’t lie in the alternate realities or particle accelerators in space that its plot propagates, rather in quite how unsuccessfully a promising spec script was ported into the burgeoning Cloverfield universe, hashed up, delayed, re-written, re-shot, and then thrown onto Netflix after the Super Bowl with, literally, around two hours notice. That story is undoubtedly more remarkable than anything in the film itself.
Let’s backtrack. In early 2008, JJ Abrams’ production house Bad Robot dropped, equally out of nowhere, the original Cloverfield. Directed by friend and collaborator Matt Reeves, who has since gone on to make quite the name for himself with the Dawn and War For the Planet of the Apes (and potentially soon The Batman), Cloverfield took everyone by surprise. Abrams, fresh off huge TV success with Lost and breaking into cinema with Mission Impossible III, managed to fuse together the en vogue found footage sub-genre with a modern day, Hollywood take on Toho, reimagining a Godzilla-esque monster ramping through New York for a post-911, burgeoning social media American audience. Punchy, frothy and deft, Cloverfield just *worked*.
Understandably, it also left people wanting more. Abrams & Reeves left just enough clues as to a wider universe to make fans salivate; a blink and you’ll miss it (literally) suggestion the monster came from outer space, for one thing. The point of that story didn’t involve answers—it was about average Joe characters thrown into a scenario equivalent to a terrorist attack, essentially—but the idea answers may point to a broader mythology left many hoping Abrams and his collaborators would follow it up. Though it took almost a decade, in 2016, again almost out of nowhere, 10 Cloverfield Lane arrived in cinemas with a more recognisable cast (including a great John Goodman performance) and a narrative which made one thing clear: the Cloverfield universe was playing by different rules.
Black Mirror arguably has found its place as The Twilight Zone of its generation, and the fourth season only serves to remind you of its allegorical power.
There’s a strong argument that the third season, which aired last year, cemented its position in that regard. That was the point Netflix pulled off one of its biggest coups – stealing Charlie Brooker’s anthology series from British terrestrial Channel 4 after two successful three-part series which brought together some of the strongest up and coming British actors to tell twisted tales regarding the ominous infiltration and immersion of technology in our lives.
Almost always set in a future ever so slightly ahead of our own, never too far to be alienating or unrecognisable, Brooker’s stories tapped into those primal existential fears we all feel – that maybe, just maybe, all these black screens, social media platforms, VR gaming innovations and so on, are destroying our culture and society rather than enriching or evolving it. Black Mirror posits a world filled with people unable truly to utilise this advanced, game changing technology often in a positive way, and frequently the majority of episodes end up being cautionary tales of some sort.
Social media has taken control of the world. Almost all of us have a smartphone and we’re wired into either Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat etc… or all of them. The open communication of the internet has made us desperate for ultimate, constant connectivity. It’s an idea that across this decade, as social media has fully taken hold over Western society, the movies have begun exploring.
Inevitably, and perhaps appropriately, cinema has largely taken social media to be a new and dangerous playground. Much as the technology is used by people of all ages (yes, even some of the elderly), apps, games and innovations remain primarily the province of the young and impressionable. Social media is attractive, not just for the fact you can build a virtual profile that presents a picture of who you would like the world to *believe* you are, but it provides a gateway to thrills and social taboos. Hence why adults are consistently reminded, and parents are scaremongered, into believing social media is a corrupting evil that will warp and destroy the minds of our children.
Filmmakers on the whole don’t quite see it that way. Many seem to consider social media to be one enormous, conceptual cautionary tale, sometimes fused a with futuristic morality play. An entire sub-genre now exists of pictures often starring, and certainly aimed at, the young, but to classify them specifically as horror films—as some have—does them a slight disservice. Those directors and writers who are interested in the pervasive effect social media has on our lives seem more keen to portray the internet, and all its myriad labryinthian contexts, as something that will only destroy us if we misuse it or refuse to pay it enough respect.