Spoiler-Free Review: Black Mirror's "Playtest" Is a Hilariously Horrifying Commentary on Extreme Gaming

Saturday, 08 October 2016 - 4:37PM
Black Mirror
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New York Comic Con
Saturday, 08 October 2016 - 4:37PM
Spoiler-Free Review: Black Mirror's "Playtest" Is a Hilariously Horrifying Commentary on Extreme Gaming
Black Mirror has been skewering our modern, technology-driven society for two seasons now, and in its first American season on Netflix, it keeps up the darkly funny, sharply satirical bent, with a much-appreciated "ugly American" twist.



In the episode shown at New York Comic Con, "Playtest," a globetrotting American ends up stranded in Britain with no money, and takes part in a test of an experimental augmented reality game that is incredibly advanced, to the point that it monitors your brain activity to discover the best way to scare you out of your wits. It's the "ultimate horror survival game," the eerily serene video game execs tell us. 

The writing by Charlie Brooker is reliably great: consistently funny, extremely dark (especially at the end, which contains a Twilight Zone-style twist that's typical of Black Mirror), and best of all, hilariously meta. The episode sends up extreme gaming, of course, but since the game takes place in a VR haunted house, it also takes shots at horror movie tropes. Some of the biggest laughs of the episode come when the protagonist describes a monster as having "dicks coming out of his mouth" (since every cheesy horror movie traffics in Freudian imagery), and when there's a suspenseful tight shot of the protagonist's face next to the open door of a cupboard, he says, "He's going to right behind this door, isn't he?"

Which brings me to my next point: the direction in this episode is flawless. "Playtest" was helmed by Dan Trachtenberg, best known for 10 Cloverfield Lane, and just like in that film, Trachtenberg uses savvy camera angles to both ratchet up the tension during scary moments and deflate it during funny moments. And as he demonstrated in 10 Cloverfield Lane, he has a knack for starting off with an innocuous, yet mysteriously ominous situation, slowly building the anxiety with little hints that something has gone awry, and then going absolutely batshit for the ending. He constantly makes you question what's real and what's not, to the point that it might take a couple of viewings to completely suss it out.

It was also amusing to see how Black Mirror was translated to an American audience. The protagonist is American, and he's likable enough, but he has that classic American arrogance that makes the whole world hate us. It was brilliant to cast him in that puffed-up, macho light, because then there's lots of dramatic irony when he scoffs at the game as easy to handle, since nothing can actually hurt you (even though he's afraid of the most stereotypical things, like spiders). Needless to say, the game is a little gnarlier than he anticipated, and the "ugly American" humor is spot-on.

Overall, Black Mirror is back, and it's just as great as it ever was. Hopefully it will be just as popular with American audiences as the Marvel/Netflix shows and Stranger Things, so we can keep watching Americanized (sort of) episodes for years to come.

Black Mirror season 3 starts streaming on October 21.
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