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Black Mirror review: the Netflix series is back – and darker than ever

Black Mirror’s hyper-stylised USS Callister
Black Mirror’s hyper-stylised USS Callister, above, is the neatest and most satisfying episode of the new series. Photograph: Jonathan Prime/Netflix

Don’t be fooled by the gorgeous scenery that makes up much of the fourth season of Black Mirror (Netflix). Its near-future fables take place over mountainous snowscapes, expanses of moorland and sprawling deserts, but its world is taut and panicked, full of damaged and damaging people, and every corner promises dread and paranoia. If there’s any festive spirit left lingering, then this will knock it right out of you. Black Mirror is darker than it has ever been.

Charlie Brooker’s series returns for another six episodes, each of which is regally confident and more cinematically ambitious than almost anything the show has done before, with the exception, perhaps, of season three’s San Junipero. Having a transatlantic budget really suits it, for the most part, allowing for some impressive feats of invention and greater scope.

While the running time of these standalone stories varies from 40 minutes to 85 minutes or so, each one plays out like a mini-movie, boldly establishing its own troubling world. ArkAngel, directed by Jodie Foster, could be an American indie; Metalhead is like a Ben Wheatley experiment, and USS Callister, easily this year’s best instalment, could have been pulled from the very darkest recesses of JJ Abrams’ mind and thrust into multiplexes to rattle unsuspecting moviegoers.

All three are likely to be the principal talking points, and when Black Mirror is at its best, it provokes discussion, though often less about technological developments and more about the fallibility of human nature. It can be difficult to discuss this show without revealing what makes it so effective – so many of the storylines rely on wrongfooting viewers and yanking the curtain away at the last minute that even a hint of a plot spoiler would trample the fun. But all is rarely as it seems and, as usual, we’re left to play the game by filling in the gaps where we can. What’s going on in the hyper-stylised, darkest timeline Star Trek-ish world of USS Callister is revealed fairly quickly, but it more than justifies its bumper length, finding tension in cruelty and thrills in adventure, and it is the neatest and most satisfying of the bunch.

The best of Black Mirror, season four. Clockwise from top left: Arkangel, Crocodile, Black Museum, USS Callister, Metalhead, and Hang the DJ.
The best of Black Mirror, season four. Clockwise from top left: Arkangel, Crocodile, Black Museum, USS Callister, Metalhead, and Hang the DJ. Composite: Netflix

There are glimmers of hope and light, too, in Hang The DJ, which attempts to see how love would look in a world where Tinder, Alexa and every algorithm that’s ever defined you come together in an electronic snowglobe which establishes you who you’re allowed to have sex with and for how long. But any sweetness is short-lived. ArkAngel, which puts parents inside the heads of their children in the interests of safety, is a gothic slow-burner that touches on a universal fear – of how quickly kids grow up – then morphs into a claustrophobic domestic tragedy that takes place over 15 increasingly grim and precarious years.

Metalhead, in which the world has gone all Madchester Max, is shot in black and white, and follows Maxine Peake’s Bella on a mission to survive what at first appears to be the world’s most stressful trip to Ikea, and I do not say that lightly. It is a breathlessly tense horror show that never relents for a second. Nor, too, does the upsetting Crocodile, one of the most unpleasant episodes that Black Mirror has ever done, which is laced with the kind of hopeless misanthropy that comes out in its nastier moments, as it did with the hacking blackmail of last season’s Shut Up And Dance. Andrea Riseborough and Kiran Sonia Sawar are award-worthy as the unfortunate duo brought together by secrets and lies. But I found its final punch and twist too much. At its rare weak moments, Black Mirror can have a tendency to favour the shock of the very worst outcome over subtlety, dredging the floors of human nature at its most horrible.

The finale – inasmuch as it’s best to save it until last – is Black Museum, a kind of mini anthology in which a devilish curator of now-illegal technology tells the stories of how it was used for wrongdoing. The initial scenes are a true treat for fans, who may wish to play spot-the-tech for devices that have appeared in the past, though I wasn’t sold on the final act, which seemed to retread old ground. Given that there’s nothing like Black Mirror on TV, it’s a minor quibble, but where its earlier episodes claimed new territory, I found myself thinking of what these instalments reminded me of: Flatliners, The Lobster, Carrie, even older episodes of Black Mirror. Still, it manages to take those familiar elements and craft them into something impossibly fearful, anxiety-inducing, and, above all, gripping. It may not always be pleasant, but it certainly makes you think.

This article titled "Black Mirror review: the Netflix series is back – and darker than ever" was written by Rebecca Nicholson, for The Guardian on Friday 29 December 2017 12.00pm

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