[Editor’s Note: Spoilers follow for “Black Mirror” Season 4, Episode 5, “Metalhead.”]
It all starts with The Dog.
David Slade, the director of “Metalhead” — itself the starkest episode in a particularly bleak Season 4 of “Black Mirror” — knew that for the story to work, the predatory robot had to be a realistic threat for both audience and prey. The effective other half of a horror two-hander, the faceless, nameless robot had to convey all the dread of future where all forms of life were under attack.
In a recent IndieWire interview, Slade talked about some of the original design ideas for what would become one of the series’ more chilling villains.
“We very quickly came to the idea in the backstory of what the robot was and how it’s made, that it would probably be a piece of military hardware. That it wouldn’t have generalized artificial intelligence, but it would have enough artificial intelligence to problem solve and that it be based on using technology just a few years down the line. What we did was we tried to make it as realistic and as close to what we thought would work as possible. Specifically, how it would sense the world. How it would see the world,” Slade said. “We had some designs for ones that had camouflage on them, which we ended up not doing in the end, but they looked really cool. If there were action figures of them, I would want the camouflage ones.”
All “Black Mirror” installments have the freedom to match their thematic guidance with a distinct visual style. Slade wanted to do something special in the world of “Black Mirror,” but series writer Charlie Brooker gave him a bit of a head start with a few spiritual ancestors.
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“It just seemed like such a fresh thing to be doing. It seemed entirely to be about humanity. It’s funny, I rarely reference anything and I’m one of those people that doesn’t really spend much time in other people’s worlds. I just try and create my own and make it as distinctive as I can,” Slade said. “The two films Charlie mentioned were ‘Duel’ and ‘Jaws.’ Both Spielberg films. I was like, ‘Yep! Got that, easy. Great!'”
Slade had already been working with the creative team behind “Metalhead,” developing their vision of the kind of doglike machines that had dominated this apocalyptic, militaristic landscape. Once they saw video of some very distinct free-standing robots — ones that can withstand kicks and do mid-air somersaults — Slade knew that their design and the overall concept of the episode had the grounding he was looking for.
“Those fucking Boston Dynamics robots are terrifying, so that in itself was enough that we didn’t have to worry about it. There was no worrying about other movies that had been made about robots that kill you because the technology is so fresh right now and it’s so specific,” Slade said. “We were like, that’s what it is. It’s a military robot. It’s got artificial intelligence. It can problem solve. It’s completely autonomous. That’s terrifying. There we go.”
The decision to go monochrome for the episode was far from an impulsive move. Rather than remove color from the equation retroactively, it happened as soon as Slade and Brooker agreed on the style at the outset. That decision helped guide the production all the way through its speedy 12-day shoot.
“It was helpful to me to go, ‘Well, we’re going to make a really fun decision here, so let’s make sure all of our location photographs, all of our wardrobe tests, everything is black and white.’ We just cut color out of the process. My memory of the whole thing is black and white,” Slade said.
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That contrast between the light and the dark plays out on both sides of the episode-long showdown. Bella (Maxine Peake) is the last of her group to survive after a failed warehouse raid, leaving her to fend for herself against one Dog bent on killing her. The black-and-white landscapes and a few gorgeous overhead tracking shots give the audience a distinct view of this world that neither of the central characters have, but Slade also wanted viewers to see what the Dog could sense.
“One of the things that we talked a lot about was LIDAR, Light Detection and Ranging. It’s the way in which most driverless cars, most autonomous robotic devices, use to get data about the world and figure out how far things are away. We actually did a bunch of testing with LIDAR cameras and found that we could quite easily create imagery of topography of the world. What we ended up doing is taking LIDAR cameras to all of our locations and LIDAR scanning all of our locations,” Slade said. “When it came to you seeing what the robots saw, that was pretty damn accurate to the data. A lot of it was 2D paintings put together. It was all very practical and real.”
But as much as the technical aspects of the episode were important to zero in on, what elevates “Metalhead” is a performance from Maxine Peake that conveys simultaneous terror and resilience at every possible turn.
“Maxine was amazing to work with and just astonishing, emotionally charged,” Slade said.
As terrifying as Bella’s escape from the Dog is, one scene late in the episode that had particular psychological pressure comes at the temporary safehouse. As Bella successfully locks the Dog out and goes in search of the keys to the Land Rover parked outside, she comes across a bedroom where the corpse of the house’s owner lies on a bed, the victim of a self-inflicted shotgun blast.
“Oh my God, yeah. We talked a lot about that scene, Maxine and I,” Slade said. “The smell. Well, we’ve seen cannibal, zombie movies and all the rest, but you smell that thing. Then she has to confront the humanity of it.”
Having directed feature films and now a TV veteran (he shot “Metalhead” just after wrapping his work on the opening season of “American Gods”), Slade sees this episode in a tradition of finding truth in the violent nature of reality.
“There has to be a level of realism. Not showy realism. Not gratuitous realism. If anything, it has to be fast and over. You have to feel it rather than see it. I feel like the violence that we see in this, it’s very brutal. It’s very quick. It happens very soon. Not to upset people, but just to be truthful,” Slade said. “That was something that probably wouldn’t have been given the time of day in an action movie or whatever, but seemed right to a drama. That there would be truth and honesty to the people and what they’re seeing and feeling and going through.”
“Metalhead” doesn’t have a happy ending, but there’s something in the lead-up to Bella’s sacrifice that makes it more than just a grim outlook on the future. It’s wrestling with how we treat all of these qualities in the present.
“I’m not a believer in all the guns go off and everybody falls on the floor and you don’t see any blood. I find that offensive quite frankly, mostly, when that happens,” Slade said. “If we get to the point where we have military robots guarding our merchandise and killing people, it would seem to me that we have a great lack of humanity. The theme, if there is one, was to do with how important it is to hold onto our humanity. I feel like the most important thing is that you feel it.”
“Black Mirror” Seasons 1-4 are now available to stream on Netflix.