Black Mirror creator explains that 'Metalhead' robot nightmare
Creator Charlie Brooker answers burning questions about his all-too-realistic robopocalypse
Note: This story discusses story elements of the Black Mirror episode “Metalhead.”
We’ve all seen movies and TV shows about killer robots. But until Netflix’s new season of its future-shock anthology drama Black Mirror, never before have we seen a terrifying vision of machines run amuck that so closely resembles the design of actual real-life robots — namely, those Boston Dynamics “dogs” that have impressed the world with their remarkable balance, speed, and dexterity … yet also unavoidably make you wonder: What if one was chasing me?
Such viral videos were the inspiration for “Metalhead,” a gripping Black Mirror episode which began streaming Friday. Below, series creator Charlie Brooker answers a few of our burning questions.
The set-up: It’s a post-apocalyptic future where robot dogs are hunting human survivors, including our protagonist (Maxine Peake), who faces an unrelenting and surprisingly capable pursuer across a barren landscape. The robot is full of lethal tricks, ranging from operating a car to re-charging from the sun. Yet perhaps the eeriest moment is when the overturned robot simply pushes itself back upright to regain its footing — as that’s something we’ve actually seen robots do in Boston Dynamics online videos. It’s perhaps the most chilling vision yet of the well-worn killer robot trope since the robot’s mechanics overlay so closely with real footage we’ve seen. Adding to the tale’s mood and originality, the episode was shot entirely in black and white by director David Slade (American Gods, Hard Candy), with a soundtrack lifting orchestral cues from The Shining.
Here’s the episode’s trailer, which doesn’t give much away:
If you don’t want any spoilers, however, be sure you watch the episode before continuing.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Loved this episode. It’s inspired I assume by those Boston Dynamics videos on YouTube crossed with Night of the Living Dead?
CHARLIE BROOKER: That’s actually scarily correct. It was from watching Boston Dynamics videos, but crossed with — have you seen the film All Is Lost? I wanted to do a story where there was almost no dialogue. And with those videos, there’s something very creepy watching them where they get knocked over, and they look sort of pathetic laying there, but then they slowly manage to get back up.
[Here’s a video of an actual Boston Dynamics dog, one of their sleek newer versions]
You never filled in questions such as: How did the robots take over? Is anybody controlling them? Did you figure that out and is there any backstory you can share?
We sort of deliberately decided not to flesh out a lot of the backstory. Originally in my first draft, we also showed a human operator operating the dog robot from across the ocean at his house. There was a bit I liked where he leaves the [control unit] while the robot is watching her while she’s up in the tree and he goes and gives his kids a bath. But it felt a bit weird and too on-the-nose. It kind of felt superfluous. We deliberately pared it back and did a very simple story.
Why did you shoot black and white? Was it just to be evocative? Or did it also save on CG costs to render the dog?
That was the director, David Slade. He wanted it to be black and white. Like you say it does put you in mind of old horror movies and it fit with the sparse, pared-back nature of the story. I don’t think it saved money on CG. It felt like something I hadn’t seen before — doing lots of CG in black and white.
In the end, the crate sought by the humans is revealed to contain teddy bears. Why that? Other than the lost humanity and a possible callback to another action-filled episode, “White Bear”?
The bears were actually yellow, but because it was [shot] in black and white, they’re white bears — I was happy with that being a little Easter egg. We went back and forth on what should be in that warehouse. Originally in the script, it just said “toys.” The idea was a box of toys for a dying child. David wanted it to be the only soft and comforting thing that we saw in the entire piece. He wanted it to be something softer and more immediately comforting. So we went for bears. Which is probably just as well because a crate full of fidget spinners would have been ridiculous.
More Black Mirror season 4 postmortem interviews:
— Black Mirror creator reveals what Jodie Foster changed in Arkangel
— Black Mirror creator answers our burning ‘Crocodile’ questions
— Black Mirror showrunner reveals the ‘Hang the DJ’ ending you didn’t see
— Charlie Brooker reveals a secret inspiration for ‘USS Callister’
Black Mirror season 4 is streaming now on Netflix.