Take out your big future guns and wear your digital contacts, it’s time for “Men Against Fire”!
WHAT’S THE IDEA HERE?
Technology (the mechanics of gaming in particular but by no means the only culprit) facilitate a sort of newly savage warfare.
In the aftermath of a biological war, humanity is hunting down the mutant remnants, a group of sharp toothed humanoid monsters called roaches.
Stripe (Malachi Kirby) is a new recruit, sent out on his first extermination mission. He gets two kills, a record first day! But he begins to experience problems, bizarre flashes and a breakdown in the technological systems that help him out.
Spoiler alert: Things are not as they seem.
SPOILERS BELOW. YEAH, YOU KNOW THE DRILL.
HOW’S THE IDEA WORK?
Part of the problem I have with “Men Against Fire” is perhaps a totally personal one. Anyone who’s seen enough anthology television or read enough science fiction stories can see what’s coming.
The second we see that the roaches are humanoid and non-verbal, combined with the second we see that there are technologies that put overlays onto the vision of our soldiers, it becomes pretty obvious what’s going on.
Indeed, the roaches are not mutant monsters, but real people that the soldiers have been contracted to kill as part of a eugenics program. The technology that enhances the soldier also literally dehumanizes those marked for execution. Stripe had his tech disrupted by a virus and that’s what’s forced him to see the people as they really are.
I really do wish the episode hadn’t so quickly tipped its hand to what’s happening. Part of Black Mirror at its best is how it holds its reveals and makes them at the most thematically relevant and impactful moment. “Men Against Fire” telegraphing so far in advance undermines that impact. By the time we do the long exposition from Michael Kelly that explains it all, it feels like Black Mirror is ultimately running over its own feet.
Which is a shame because the episode on the whole is really quite compelling in its ideas. The effect of technology on war is actually something Black Mirror has yet to touch, and what it’s asking here is important.
While a lot of the talk here is going to be about is video games, I think there’s only a tangential relationship there. It’s certainly using video game imagery, let’s be real here. We jump constantly to a first person perspective, and the way that popular war games turn violence against unknown monsters into a form of othering, and making violence against an other understandable, and even a goal to be achieved.
That being said, video games are certainly a mode of operation for “Men Against Fire,” but not its key target, I believe. To a large degree, “Men Against Fire” is Brooker’s screed against drone warfare and the way in which technology does separate us from the actual weight of war. The soldiers are human drones, modified and given the ability to kill without passion or feeling Brooker is pointing hard towards drone warfare as what will make us savages again. Moreover, it’s about how easily manipulable something like that is, how it can be used by the powerful to strike against their enemies. We use eugenics in this episode as a quick shorthand for any other, any undesirable.
All that, the problem is that all that thematic brilliance serves a pretty underwhelming episode. The design is strong, there’s some decent action, and Malachi Kirby gives a strong central performance. But the aforementioned early telegraphing of its twist is indicative of the episode’s larger issues.
It’s just not all there. It’s a slower paced episode, one that doesn’t hit its marks as need be. Nothing hits hard, none of the characters are particularly interesting or well put together. There’s no human element. Even if that’s ultimately the point, it means that Black Mirror feels out of sorts without its anchor. The best episodes of this season have been so intensely human that it sticks out that this one isn’t.
I’m willing to cop how much of my reaction to this episode is personal. But without a human element and with such a telegraphed reveal, there was little here to hold my interest. Plenty to admire and more to chew on than many shows would offer. But I can and do expect more from Black Mirror.
- Fifteen Million Merits – A+
- San Junipero – A
- Be Right Back – A
- White Bear – A
- The Entire History of You – A
- White Christmas – A-
- The National Anthem – A-
- Nosedive – B+
- Playtest – B+
- Shut Up and Dance – B-
- The Waldo Moment – C
- Men Against Fire – C