Black Mirror Season 3 Episode 5: Men Against Fire review
One of the great modern satirists, Charlie Brooker nevertheless loses his way in his commentary on dictatorship, brainwashing, and the dehumanisation of refugees. Men Against Fire is Black Mirror’s attempt at a war film, fitting battlefield thrills into its typically dystopian, ‘technology-gone-wrong’ future. Sadly, neither element really works until the final few minutes.
In the future, soldiers are tasked with exterminating ‘roaches’ – disturbing humanoids with sharpened teeth. After killing his first roach, twitchy soldier Stripe (Malachi Kirby) begins having strange visions, possibly brought on by the flashing device he found in the roach’s possession. Praised by his commanding officer (Sarah Snook, the astonishing star of last year’s Predestination) and soothed by psychologist Arquette (Michael Kelly), Stripe carries on with his mission, becoming more and more exposed to truths nobody else in the military can see. Why does he suddenly have an urge to protect the very enemy he’s supposed to be killing?
Spending most of its running time establishing the bleak warzone and revealing the technology at its core (soldiers wear sinister brain implants that gives them enhanced vision, change their landscapes, and rewards them for kills with simulated sexual dreams), Men Against Fire is one of the most sluggish episodes of the series. Given the action packed script and intriguing mythical enemies, it’s hard to see where it went wrong. It’s possibly down to Stripe, a deliberately blank leading character who’s very difficult to root for; the only insight we gain into him is his repeated nighttime fantasy. None of the characters stick in the memory long after the episode finishes; Snook should have been given a juicy leading role, but is instead given a cliché pastiche of Ripley from Alien.
Visually inspired by the kinetic likes of REC and The Raid, Men Against Fire has a few decent action set pieces, yet creates little excitement. Is this due to the lack of stakes, or because this feels like a story told many times before? It’s a shame, for the episode builds to one of its cleverest reveals yet. Devoting fifteen minutes to an excellent monologue from Michael Kelly, it radically changes everything we’ve previously seen and reveals the true evil of the episode (bringing technology to the forefront once again). It should be one of the most dramatic endings in recent memory, but due to the poorly paced build up, it feels more interesting than the shocker it should be.
Like another mediocre episode, The Waldo Moment, it feels like Brooker focused too much on the idea and not enough on the characters. While the bleak look at war and subservience is provocative, and the story;s resolution is ingenious, the episode lacks any drama because there’s nobody to root for or care about. Men Against Fire should be a high octane thriller, but it struggles to get out first gear.
By Harry J. Ford
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