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Tuesday, November 08, 2016

The Root of Fear is Madness: On Black Mirror's "Playtest"

[NOTE: This is the second in a series of reviews of Black Mirror Season 3. These posts DO include spoilers. Stop reading now if you don't want to know!]

The second episode of Season 3 ("Playtest") is what I imagine many people who have heard about Black Mirror but never actually watched the series would expect the show to be like. "Playtest" is a straightforward horror film and, for that reason, I wanted to turn it off about halfway through.  I hate, hate, HATE horror films. I do not find the experience of being afraid exciting or thrilling or enjoyable in any way whatsoever. In fact, I don't think that anyone enjoys being really afraid. (So, if you say you enjoy haunted houses or roller coasters or bungee jumping, that is evidence enough for me that those things do not truly frighten you.) Real fear paralyzes, incapacitates, terrorizes. It cannot be reasoned with. It is immune to grit or determination or willpower. And it is intensely, radically idiosyncratic.

"Playtest" is, in part, about that idiosyncratic element of what frightens us, something we might call the fundamental own-ness of our fears. The story revolves around a new virtual reality game being beta tested by the eponymously-named company Saito Geimu (a Japanese transliteration for "sight game"). The game immerses you in a too-real experience that is designed to frighten, during which it "learns" the nooks and crannies of your subconscious mind, and then employs the deepest, darkest things it finds there to (literally) dial you up. For the playtester Cooper (Wyatt Russell)-- who isn't really a "gamer," just a dude looking for a side-hustle and some easy cash-- the virtual experience starts out with giant spiders, things-that-go-bump-in-the-night, and apparitions uncannily resembling his childhood bully, but it ends with a terrifying descent down the Escher-esque stairs of madness.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

#ImWithSusan: Finding Friends in the Black Mirror "Nosedive"

[NOTE: This is the first in a series of reviews of Black Mirror Season 3. These posts DO include spoilers. Stop reading now if you don't want to know!]

All of the episodes of Charlie Booker's brilliant sci-fi series Black Mirror take place in a near-distant future, but in the first installment of the newly-released third season ("Nosedive") that future is far more "near" than it is "distant." And it is the uncanny nearness of the "Nosedive" world that makes it both almost-unbearably uncomfortable to watch and deeply, at times painfully, disturbing. And/yet/but, if watched with one's head tilted askance at exactly the right angle, I think, "Nosedive" is perhaps the most potentially hopeful Black Mirror episode so far.

Booker's imagined world in "Nosedive" is somewhat unusual by Black Mirror standards for its lack of "futuristic" technologies. In the "Nosedive"world, realtors can holographically "insert" you into a home you're considering buying to help persuade you the home is a good fit. People have eye-implants that allow them to see important information about others' digital selves projected onto their meatspace selves. The automobiles in"Nosedive" are eco-friendly, battery-powered iCars that you plug in with a USB cable. But, all in all, that's about it as far as the imagined "futuristic" technology goes.