Boy, computers are scary, huh? Virtual reality is pretty scary too. Also scary: the crazy things they’re doing with video games these days. Also also scary: dementia, responsibility, death, and something to do with the Singularity.
“Playtest” isn’t a terrible episode of Black Mirror, but it is a disappointingly unfocused one, covering a fairly cliched concept in a lot of vaguely modern trappings that never quite add up to anything more than a series of “Oooo, isn’t that something” moments. Curiously, it’s running time is both a strength and its greatest weakness. The full hour(ish) allows for an extended first act in which we meet our protagonist Cooper (Wyatt Russell), an American traveling abroad in order to escape some difficulties at home. We see Cooper hooking up with a British woman, Sonja (Hannah John-Kamen), learn just what those difficulties at home actually are, and then see him make the bog standard anthology protagonist mistake: when in semi-desperate straits, he takes the option which seems too good to be true.
The scenes with Cooper and Sonja are charming enough, and certain groundwork is being laid that will be important once the story kicks off. But we spend so much screentime seeing their relationship (a hook-up that becomes a little bit more) build that it starts to raise certain expectations. Is Sonja in on the game? Is there something about Cooper we aren’t seeing?
As far as I can tell, no she isn’t (a version of her shows up later on but, well, we’ll get to that), and, once we find out that Cooper’s dad died of early onset Alzheimer’s and that he’s avoiding his mother because of it, that’s pretty much it. Sonja’s biggest contribution to the narrative, apart from pushing Cooper to take the playtesting gig, is to convince him to send her a picture of any top secret tech he finds at Saito Games, thus leaving his phone on so that a badly timed call from his mother disrupts the virtual-reality equipment and fries poor Cooper’s brain. Oh, and she gives the script another potential source of mindfuckery for when Cooper starts melting down.
Which is all well and good, and the criticism I’m trying to make here isn’t something as simple as “These scenes were bad.” They weren’t! In fact, I’d say the episode is at its best in the long build-up to the main event; once it actually has to start committing to an actual story, it’s still fun, but it loses some of the mystery it’s working so hard to cultivate. As soon as Sonja finds the posting on the Odd Jobs app, with its suspiciously lucrative offer, it’s clear something nasty is going to go down. And as soon as Cooper gets strapped in, you know you can’t really trust anything you see.
There’s some entertainment in that, and there’s something to be said for how the repeated reassurances that “Nothing can harm you” actually serve to make the horrors Cooper finds more unsettling. The more his playtest guide Katie (Wunmi Mosaku) promises he’ll be safe, the more the specter of danger looms, to the point that when actual danger does arrive, it’s more a relief than a shock. But then it turns out to be fake, and then there’s another twist, and there’s one more twist, and then there’s another one, and that last bit’s where the actual violence happens. By then, it barely registers.
Really, it’s the ending that’s the problem, a shrug of a conclusion that’s little more than a dark joke. You could argue there’s some message about how what really scares isn’t spider-monsters or plotting girlfriends but the inevitable fact of our own dissolution and that of our loved ones, but the whole thing winds up so quickly that it’s hard to care much either way. The discovery that Cooper has been in a simulation since the moment Katie hooked him up to the machine is an idea that always crops up in stories with this sort of technology (“You survived cancer and you went back to the carpet store?”), and it’s long ago lost its power to blow anyone’s mind. Other than poor Cooper’s, of course.
But then, maybe this would’ve been easier to take if we hadn’t spent so much time getting to know Cooper at the outset. The typical Black Mirror episode runs about an hour, and generally the show has a good handle on how to make the most of that running time. “Playtest” certainly never drags. But in making Cooper a sympathetic figure, it’s hard to watch his one-mistake-and-dead experience without feeling slightly cheated. Once the simulation begins, there’s some nifty visuals, but nothing ever truly surprises in a way that feels like all of this is worth the time it takes to watch. A half hour, this could’ve been a mean-spirited but enjoyable joke. Twice that, and it’s less mean-spirited, but more obviously hollow.
Still, points for incorporating one of the great boogeymen of modern technology, the “interfering cell phone signal.” (The episode even cleverly nods to its conclusion in the opening scenes, when a flight attendant asks Cooper to turn off his phone during some turbulence.) And points as well for getting at the (admittedly kind of obvious) downside of giving a program access to your brain and having it figure out what scares you the most. Charlie Brooker may not have the greatest grasp on how game companies work— the program here isn’t a game so much as an excuse for irony—but the more fixated we become on finding pure experiences, the more likely it is we’ll lose sight of the danger of such experiences.
And as long as we’re handing out praise, while it doesn’t offer much in the way of deeper satisfaction, Cooper’s time in the spooky mansion does a great job of building tension with a lot of slow, quiet scenes; it’s a bit reminiscent of Ti West’s House Of The Devil, albeit far, far more compressed. (Given that West’s movie spends nearly all of its running time on the slow burn, that comparison is probably not the most precise, but it’s still the first one that came to mind.) The escalating terrors do a good job of suggesting a system methodically digging deeper into Cooper’s psyche, building to that final devastating discovery that his mother has been stricken with the same disease as his father.
“Playtest” works well enough moment-to-moment, but it raises expectations too high before settling on a fair but disappointing conclusion. Although at the very least, anyone who watches this won’t ever make the mistake of leaving their cell phone on when they shouldn’t again.
- I doubt I caught every video game nod in the hour, but Sonja had a decent collection on her shelf (I saw Dark Souls and Portal 2 among others), and Katie’s “Would you kindly open the door?” is a clever nod to Bioshock. Unfortunately, the actual “game” Cooper playtests isn’t really a game at all, with no clear goals, no apparent win condition, and no narrative. It had me wishing the episode had taken more cues from something like P.T., a short, absolutely terrifying playable teaser that didn’t offer any of the usual obvious game mechanisms, but still managed to feel like more than just an excuse to fuck with people’s heads.
- Why did Cooper’s virtual reality experience include security camera footage that couldn’t possibly exist in the real world? It’s used to show that none of the things he’s seeing are real, but that only serves to undercut the tension.
- It’s a bit sad that even a triple fake-out doesn’t really surprise anymore.