Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Black Mirror: Fifteen Million Merits (2011)

My fingers were, indeed, crossed.  After TheNational Anthem I was dreading what might come.  Deliberately, I’d kept clear of the television guide, for fear that once more the plot of Black Mirror would come down to a single idea; inescapable as a ACME ton weight.

Within the first five minutes, my fingers unclenched and straightened.  Within the first thirty minutes my jaw had dropped a little.

But this time there was no disgust.  No horror.  And certainly no anger.  Black Mirror: Fifteen Million Merits was, it’s fair to say, the best piece of dystopian science fiction I have ever seen.  What made it so good?

Well, like The National Anthem, it had an appreciation and understanding of technology.  Where it departed from TNA, though, was its prescience.  Good SF takes concepts and grows them as surely as if they were genetically modified apples in laboratory trays of bio-gel solution.  Great SF does that and injects a metric ton of emotion.  FMM did that...with extra emoticons.

Characterisation was superb.  Every figure was deftly drawn and strongly acted.  We understood motivations, dreams and fears.  We empathised.  The key tragic plot points, therefore, were devastatingly effective. 

The narrative had light and shade, not to mention genuine humour.  The whole thing felt organic and true, especially when placed against the blindly single-minded concept of TNA.  Its conclusion may not have been the one I’d have chosen, but it certainly felt like a genuine, worthwhile tragedy – something that released emotion and stimulated thought.

In my review of TNA I suggested that it wouldn’t have been made if the main character had been female.  I felt that her resultant rape would not have been broadcast.  FMM disproved that to some extent.  I should perhaps now fill you in on the general story just in case you don’t intend to watch it.  But really...why wouldn’t you?

--- spoiler ---

In the world of FMM you pedal on an exercise bike to earn ‘merits’ through generation of electricity.  Everything you use in a day costs merits (so, for example, we see our main character ‘pay’ for toothpaste, lunch etc).  All the time you’re bombarded with television on huge screens (your abode is a seamlessly covered box of screens, you pedal in front of a screen, and even the urinal has a banner screen running along at head height).

Our main character is a pedalling chappy (played by an actor I’ll always think of as Tealeaf, Daniel Kaluuya) who falls in love with a girl (Jessica Brown-Findlay)...a girl who has a heartbreakingly beautiful voice.  Something fragile and true amongst the ‘black mirrors’ of the omnipresent screens.

The tragedy begins, however, when boy gives girl the funds to allow her to enter the not at all veiled SF version of the X-Factor.  Thrust into this particularly soulless section of a soulless world, girl is taken under the wing of the judges –not to become a famous singer (that’s so last season), but to join the biggest pornography network there is.

Alone in his room, the boy is haunted by the adverts which now feature the girl he loves become headline act for a porn channel.  He no longer has the merits to skip them.  If he looks away he’s bombarded with noise until he looks again.

So he pedals away, earning merits to allow him to confront the judges (and, of course, the millions of viewers) and vent his spleen, heart and assorted viscera.  Their response?

“You’ve got something real.  Something true.  I like you’s where I am....”

And so he’s swallowed up by the world against which he raged.  And that is as satisfying a tragic outcome as you could ask for.


So, we see that FMM did effectively show the rape of a female character.  I still argue that TNA was a very different story and much more problematic.  Although effectively raped by her society en masse, the love interest of FMM is not shown on anything other than adverts after the audition.  We are not shown her functioning normally after her public rape.  We see her die a little on screen, and know that there’s no turning back from this.

The use of advertising was also particularly clever.  Not being able to escape it really struck a chord with Deb, who is much more affected by advertising than I.  I am able to let these things flow over me, and although I may end up whistling music from the catchier examples, in general I’m not aware of what’s going on (as in most things, really...).  It’s as if Deb has a particularly sensitive and aware brain that’s forced to swallow all of these images.  Spotify, for example, is running an advert by Garmin which takes the beautiful Carol of the Bells and turns it into ‘Give a give a give a Garmin...give a give a give a Garmin...’.  Every time it starts playing, she turns a certain shade of puce and looks ready to headbutt the nearest wall.

Of course, being show on channel 4 there was another level to this entirely, as suddenly they would cut to a real advertising break.  Seeing young kids prancing around in front of an x-box, and to be force fed the message ‘if you love someone, buy them this’ made us shiver.

As much as I didn’t like TNA, I’d still like to praise the use in Black Mirror of the ‘one-off drama’ format.  Indeed, Charlie Brooker wrote about it here and it is true that the thing that this format does so well is introducing something fresh and different.  It is, of course, not the cheapest or safest means of making television.  You cannot reuse sets as easily, and you cannot create a hook by playing around with the long-running lives of characters (often in ways that make no narrative or human sense).  But that is exactly why they are worthwhile.

So yes.  Of course, I still can’t bring myself to admit that my love-rival did good.  Instead, I shall put all the praise firmly in the lap of Konnie Huq, Charlie Brooker’s wife and co-writer.  She honestly seems to have taken Brooker’s caustic wit and razor-sharp-satire and mounted it in a beautifully wrought handle.  The resultant safety razor has achieved its job of stripping the numbing fluff of ignorance and apathy from the chin of society whilst drawing as little blood as possible.  Beautiful, powerful and entirely appropriate.  I loved it.

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