Charlie Brooker’s mind-bending and ambitious sci-fi anthology series, the critically acclaimed Black Mirror, returns for a condensed 5th season on Netflix today with only 3 new episodes (Season 3 and Season 4 both had 6 episodes).
While each new title still sticks very closely to the “technology might be the end of us” motif, the dark tales here seem more focused on intimate, personal stories and the underlying human condition than mimicking the Twilight Zone‘s existential horror themes. Which is great for the most part, except we’ve seen this before.
Over its 5 seasons, Black Mirror has covered a lot of territory in terms of the social and political dangers of technology. We’ve had smart gadgets invading our homes, virtual reality bending our fantasies and warnings on the dangers of social media obsession.
And now we have them again, albeit in a slightly more down-to-earth way.
What’s kept fans of the show invested for so long has always been Brooker’s ability to question and project an eerily realistic future with current tech. Unfortunately, with the latest season, it seems he has run out of catalysts. He has covered these topics before.
The latest season begins with Striking Vipers, which gets its title from a virtual reality game within the episode. It stars Avengers: Endgame‘s Anthony Mackie as Danny, a married man who longs for the intimate passion of his youth. His wife, played by Sleepy Hollow‘s Nicole Beharie, attempts to spice things up by prompting the occasional roleplay. However, the couple struggles to maintain the spark. When Danny meets up with an old gaming buddy, Karl (Aquaman‘s Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who introduces him to Striking Vipers, he becomes increasingly obsessed with spending time within the game.
Striking Vipers is the strongest of the three stories. Mackie and Abdul-Mateen II are excellent in their respective roles and the hour-long episode is really well directed.
In Smithereens, we’re introduced to a suicidal rideshare driver named Chris (Andrew Scott) who hijacks an employee (Damson Idris) from a prominent social media company. Driving off to the countryside, he negotiates with the police in order to get a phone call to the company’s CEO, Billy Bauer (Topher Grace).
While Smithereens offers the most edge-of-your-seat tension of the three, it fails to deliver any memorable characters, despite Andrew Scott’s strong performance. It’s a damn good ride, but you’ll completely forget about it once the credits roll. And, again, that’s never been the case with Black Mirror. Brooker usually has the ability to haunt viewers with loaded questions about their own weaknesses towards technology. Sadly, that doesn’t happen here. The emotional climax lands without real impact.
The final episode, titled Rachel, Jack and Ashley, Too, is the weakest of the three. It stars Miley Cyrus as a fictionalised pop star who struggles to deal with the pressures of her fame. In other words, Miley Cyrus as Miley Cyrus. A teenage girl named Rachel (Angourie Rice) becomes smitten by a smart doll – a Furby-like AI robot who sports a pink wig – based on the likeness and personality of the pop star. Soon things “short circuit” and Rachel and her sister attempt to help the robot save the pop star.
It’s a straightforward story and you’ve seen this before. Think ’80s Amblin or Johnny 5.
Here’s the thing: Black Mirror Season 5 isn’t badly written or directed or performed. It’s just that the previous seasons set the bar really, really high. And, unfortunately, these three episodes don’t really cut it or live up to the level of cultural criticism we’ve come to expect from Brooker.
The season has a subpar 65% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes (71% for
Striking Vipers, 65% for Smithereens, and 46% for Rachel, Jack and Ashley, Too), the lowest of any season yet. Perhaps a 6-episode run would have worked better but, as it stands, the show is out of fresh ideas.
Season 5 of Black Mirror is available to stream on Netflix now.
Black Mirror Season 5
Black Mirror Season 5 is well-crafted, beautifully made and filled with impressive acting. Sadly, it's also mostly boring, safe and more of the same. It has lost its unnerving insight into the dangers of tech. Even still, it's highly recommended viewing.