Saturday, January 7, 2012

Thru the "Black Mirror"

A few days ago, I stumbled across a clip on Youtube that I thought was a short film, but turned out to be an episode of a recent British science fiction anthology program called "Black Mirror." And without a doubt, it was the most fascinating piece of science fiction that I've seen in a long time, either in a theater or on television.

The episode is titled "15 Million Merits," and presents a vision of a dystopian future where young adults live in windowless dormitories, surrounded perpetually by video screens. They spend every day peddling on exercise bikes to generate energy and earn merits, which are used to pay for food and other necessities, but mostly end up spent on virtual goods. Most daily interactions and transactions are virtual, carried out with virtual world avatars. To help compensate for the endless drudgery, reality shows play around the clock, including a popular variant of what looks like "The X Factor," called "Hot Shot." Beyond synthesized food and identical clothing, tangible possessions are almost nonexistent for the workers, but the elites glimpsed on the entertainment programs seem to live far better lives.

The rat in this maze of video screens and virtual landscapes is Bing (Daniel Kaluuya), a quiet man who has amassed a small fortune in merits, the fifteen million of the title. He falls in love with a newcomer, Abi (Jessica Brown-Findlay), after hearing her sing, and decides to pay for her entry fees to the "Hot Shot" competition. And then, because this is dystopian science-fiction, Bing learns how dark and twisted his world really is. "Merits" is a stinging attack on the culture of distraction, targeting reality shows, social networking, and virtual reality. It's "Harrison Bergeron," for the digital age and uses its own best tools against it. Initially I thought that the show must have had an incredible budget, but look close and you realize the sets are actually quite small and limited. It's all the graphic blandishment on the video screens that makes everything look bigger and cooler than it really is.

So much of the effectiveness of "Merits" comes from the production design, making great use of already existing virtual world iconography. The virtual avatars look like the "Mii" characters used in the Wii gaming system, and the hand movements that control them are reminiscent of current motion capture gaming technology, just minus the controllers. Food dispensers have low-resolution graphics with displays that could have could have come from 8-bit video games. The graphics are so well designed, full of all the pop and brightness of Facebook games and iPhone apps, it's hard not to stare and marvel. But as the story goes on, it becomes clear that all this dazzling eye candy is a poor substitute for the real world.

The nice effects certainly aren't the only thing to write home about. Daniel Kaluuya's performance as Bing is exceptional, helping to make a story about big ideas very personal and immediate. The writing delivers a lot of good surprises, from a morbid spin on a talent show judges' panel, to the cathartic monologue at the episode's climax, to the final, chilling scene where we learn Bing's fate. I was surprised at how raw and unfiltered the dialogue was, but British television hews to different standards, and I was glad for that here. And at the helm, director Euros Lyn, veteran of many recent "Doctor Who" episodes, expertly juggles a lot of outlandish elements to create a cohesive whole, and brings out all the claustrophobic paranoia and black humor.

I love science fiction, but it is rare to find something as topical, sharp and intelligent as "15 Million Merits." Too often it's all giant robots and laser guns, instead of the social critiques and moral parables that science fiction is so good at, and should be used for more often. The "Black Mirror" anthology specifically singles out recent technological developments for examination and seems keen on really delving into the potential implications of our Internet-fixated society, and illuminating human nature through the fantastic. That makes it closer in spirit to "The Twilight Zone," cited as one of its chief influences, than most of the "Zone" clones I could name.

I have absolutely no idea when "Black Mirror" and "15 Million Merits" is going to make its way to the rest of the globe, if at all, and if there are going to be more episodes beyond the three produced so far. But one thing I'm sure of, is that I want to see more television and more science-fiction like this.

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