Following ‘Nosedive’ was going to be difficult, to be fair.
Black Mirror’s third season started with a particularly stellar episode, one that set the bar high for any that followed it. It’s perhaps understandable that ‘Playtest’, then, feels a little disappointing in comparison.
Broadly speaking, ‘Playtest’ is an attempt at a horror story for the internet age; it’s a haunted mansion with CGI jump scares being beamed straight into the main character’s mind. It’s reasonably effective, as it goes; a moody piece that is often quite scary, with palpable tension throughout.
Dan Trachtenburg, a director with impressive horror pedigree (note the success of 10 Cloverfield Lane earlier this year), does an excellent job with this tale – he’s clearly put a lot of work into the texture of the episode, deftly handling the different aesthetics throughout, leading to a really beautiful hour of television.
The script has plenty of quite intelligent moments and unexpected reversals. Arguably the most effective of these was the handling of Cooper’s father’s Alzheimer’s – having set the audience up to expect an apparition of the father, Charlie Brooker expertly subverts this by presenting a far subtler rendition of Cooper’s fears about his own mental state. It’s possibly one of the most intelligent scares of the episode, and by that token the most meaningful; certainly, it stands head and shoulders above the CGI jump scares that proliferate the rest of the episode.
Yet despite this, there’s something about ‘Playtest’ that just feels… empty.
Perhaps it’s because the premise of the episode is one inherently based on falsehood; it’s emphasised very early on that Cooper’s experiences are all, essentially, just in his head. Accordingly, it’s difficult to be particularly scared for him – there’s already a degree of separation, given the audience acts only as observers, but it’s taken a step further by the fact that none of this is actually happening.
It’s difficult to get particularly invested in what’s going on, when it’s been established that it’s all audio-visual hallucinations anyway; the episode leads us to believe that, at a certain point, the events are real – but there’s never any inclination to believe this, based on what had gone before.
‘Playtest’ is too reliant on these reversals, in the end; the final revelation that the episode was took place across less than one tenth of a second, entirely in Cooper’s mind, is presumably meant to seem smart but ultimately feels trite. One can’t help but wonder if the episode would have been more effective had the episode concluded one twist earlier, with the apparent revelation that Cooper’s mother now also had Alzheimer’s. To confirm that reality was worse than his greatest fears would be a more impactful note to end on.
Despite a strong opening episode, Black Mirror’s third season drops the ball somewhat with ‘Playtest’: a serviceable yet largely average haunted house story with an entertaining sci-fi twist, yet lacking the edge that usually makes Black Mirror so compelling.
Available from Friday 21 October 2016 on Netflix.
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