Black Mirror Delivers a Warning and Packs a Punch: Men Against Fire Review
Black Mirror Delivers a Warning
I’ve always loved Black Mirror; heck, you might say I liked it before it was cool. Okay, I’m sure lots of people feel that way, and I don’t mean to go full hipster, but this series is straight up intersecting so many of my interests. First and foremost are psychology and technology.
I was fortunate enough to take a class on exactly these types of issues while in grad school in Chicago. We talked a lot about past inventions and technological advancements with some discussion of the future as well, while analyzing how tech influences our societal lives. Those were some of the best and deepest conversations I’ve ever had in an academic setting, and I love that the explosion in popularity of Black Mirror allows my friends and me to continue having discussions like that.
As a brief intro to the series, Black Mirror is a British show that examines how tech influences humanity, at its base. The episodes don’t generally have any overlap (except for an easter egg here and there), so they can actually be watched in any order, thus far. Many people compare it to the Twilight Zone, primarily because of the strong sense that there’s always a morality to the episodes. While not always a clear right and wrong, viewers are usually left with an opinion of how they would react to being confronted with technology of that nature in their lives. This makes the show an amazing conversation piece, and I plan to do a few more write ups of specific episodes in the future.
The magic of Black Mirror’s best episodes – they can’t all be winners – is that the technology is introduced slowly and pretty organically. Most episodes ease the viewer into the world and situation that the characters are experiencing, and the writing gives the viewer plenty of connections to their own reality to enable empathy and understanding. I’ll dive into some of the more tech-specific episodes in other posts, but I have to get the most topical and social-commentary related example out of the way first.
Men Against Fire
Episode 5 of season 3 is called Men Against Fire, and it is, well, straight fire. SPOILERS BELOW.
Like so many of the episodes, it’s immediately obvious that we are dropped into a world not unlike our own, albeit with some badass augmented reality helping out the soldiers who look to be either US or maybe UN at first glance. They are going after an enemy of the dubious name, Roach. The obvious thing would be for them to be a creature of some kind, a la Starship Troopers, but as the episode continues it becomes clear that the Roaches are dehumanized beings that have some sort of sickness.
After the first firefight and Roach hunt, the episode gains some intrigue and Black Mirror drops one of its classic small hints of tech. Some of the tech that affects our lives are huge developments of industry or entertainment, and others are more subtle but still have an impact. The show excels at showing both off equally.
For instance, the ability to pilot a drone and see through your own eyes with an AR overlay that resembles Microsoft’s HoloLens is a crazy, yet maybe not so far off development that could change everyday life dramatically. But to further build the overall scene of a technologically controlled and enveloped life, Black Mirror also slowly drops hints and then subtly confirms that we’re in a world where the augments have the ability to control sleep patterns and dreams.
Of course, most of these plot points and details serve a deeper purpose than mere intrigue. In this case, the purpose is to alert the viewer to the vast and full control that the military has over its personnel. They are controlling their sleep patterns and rewarding the soldiers with the equipment of vivid dream-state conjugal visits for a job well done on the battlefield. It seems the soldiers are being engineered by the tech to be their most efficient selves.
It seems the soldiers are being engineered by the tech to be their most efficient selves.
As the episode develops, the horrifying truth that Roaches are in fact just humans is revealed in heartbreaking fashion. The viewer knows that the main character has been affected by a device of some kind by a Roach in the first fight, but other than glitches in his AR and a bizarre reward-dream, it’s unclear exactly what is going on as a result of the device. In the next battle though, the Roaches start to fight back and he is confronted with seeing a full-on human get savagely gunned down by his partner.
After the battle, the main character helps the Roaches run. As the Roach, Catarina, is describing what is happening, she paints a terrifying and topical picture of how the world got to such a dystopian state. In many Black Mirror episodes, I find the main linchpin of the story to be fascinating but somewhat unrealistic. In light of recent events and our own world history, I found the following quote to be a warning.
“Ten years ago, it began. Post-war. First the screening program, the DNA checks, then the register, the emergency measures. And soon everyone calls us creatures. Filthy creatures. Every voice. The TV. The computer. Say we have… we have sickness in us…. It’s in our blood…. My name was Catarina, he was Alec, now we are just Roach.”
The parallels to so many dark periods of history are obvious and disheartening. The Holocaust, World Wars propaganda perpetrated by all sides that led to mass internment camps for which countries only recently fully apologized, and recent calls for religion-based registries by a certain President-elect in the US (and the harrowing update that the now-President’s executive orders are already trending in this direction; this parallel has been drawn by other reviews and recaps as well).
Critically, the resistance from the Roaches is also a technological advancement that allowed them to hack into the augmented reality of the military. They realized that making the aggressors see their humanity would be the key to breaking them of their will to kill.
They realized that making the aggressors see their humanity would be the key to breaking them of their will to kill.
Two more big reveals hit in the final few minutes of the episode that left me with so many questions and a mind full of racing thoughts. The ‘bad blood’ that constitutes a Roach is simple humanity as we know it today. Perverted eugenics a la the Nazis. Cancer, criminality, MS, suboptimal IQ, and sexual deviances are a few of the ‘conditions’ that required registration in the early days and extermination now. It is framed as a fight for human survival by the military psychologist assigned to ‘reprogram’ the main character’s unit. Once again, it’s worth noting that ascertaining knowledge of these types of predispositions may not be so very far off in the real world.
At the episode’s peak, the soldier is forced to relive his Roach killings as he really would have seen them if he knew they were humans all along. Through his AR implants he sees himself killing innocent humans mercilessly as they beg for their lives. Confronted with the possibility of having to relive this terror on loop while incarcerated, he agrees to have his control system restarted, knowing full well that he’ll be sent back into service with the same misguided beliefs.
The show concludes with the soldier seemingly visiting his home before starting service again. He is clearly ‘online’ again as his pupils are clouded over as he stands outside his idyllic looking home. He sees his wife’s silhouette – the viewer was introduced to her through the aforementioned conjugal dream visits – and she exits the house. The camera zooms suddenly and there is no wife, but only a boarded up and graffiti covered home. It shouldn’t be a shock at this point, but his utter helplessness because of the depth of the lies is a final gut-punch to the viewer.
Black Mirror’s Winning Formula
Black mirror works because the stories are our stories told on a slightly different timeline. Our plays acted out on a slightly different stage – and usually one that’s not too far away from our own.
Black Mirror is so successful because it is always telling two stories. One is the actual plot and dialogue and world building that happens for the characters. Usually these are heartening or heartbreaking stories of the human condition. The viewer sees breakups and love making, death and birth, true emotional connections and the depths of loneliness. These plots are intertwined and all affected by the technology available and/or forced upon the characters.
Black Mirror works because the stories are our stories told on a slightly different timeline. Our plays acted out on a slightly different stage – and usually one that’s not too far away from our own.
Sometimes these differences can be aspirational, and there is rich history of the tech industry following inspiration from shows like Star Trek and Star Wars in the past. But other episodes, like Men Against Fire, can serve as a stark reminder of our past and a warning to not allow technology to exacerbate humanity’s weaknesses or allow those who are powerful to take advantage of those who are less fortunate. The message of hope from this episode is that there was a resistance who were equally able to adapt through technology, and that viewpoints could possibly be changed with the right tactic. Ultimately, seeing the humanity in others was the answer to the conflict in the plot, as it so often is in our current world as well.
As Tom eloquently expressed, Black Mirror is indeed pretty dope. Its dopeness is in large part due to Black Mirror’s emphasis on the dark elements of societal reflection – a notion defined both by its name and its cracked vision of the future.
While I think that some of the episodes provide a caricature of technological corruption, they often serve as giant red flags regarding carelessness and pitfalls to avoid. Some are purely visceral and trauma-centered, like the “White Bear” episode. Others are socially engaging and build a holistic world like Season 3’s intro “Nosedive”.
Men Against Fire stands as one of the more immediately intriguing episodes as it displays technological prowess and its use against the out-group as a tool to bring about what that particular government has deemed a “rightful” end.
The Crux of the episode, in my eyes, rests on a single narrative element that the military psychologist describes. I don’t know how truthful the statements are to real history, but they are compelling nonetheless. I’ll paraphrase it here, as it’s taken from this analysis of that particular notion.
“Humans. You know we give ourselves a bad rap, but we’re generally empathetic as a species. I mean, we don’t actually really want to kill each other. Which is a good thing. Until your future depends on wiping out the enemy … I don’t how much history you studied in school. Many years ago, I’m talking early 20th century, most soldiers didn’t even fire their weapons. Or if they did they would just aim over the heads of the enemies. They did it on purpose. British Army, World War I — the brigadier, he’d walk the line with a stick and he’d whack his men in order to get ‘em to shoot.
“Even in World War II, in a firefight, only 15, 20 percent of the men would pull the trigger. Fate of the world at stake, and only 15 percent open fire. Now what does that tell you? It tells me that that war would have been over a whole lot quicker if the military got its shit together. So we adapted. Better training, better conditioning. Then comes the Vietnam War, and the shooting percentage goes up to 85. Lot of bullets flying. The kills are still low. Plus the guys who did get a kill, most of them came back messed up in the head.”
This whole monologue immediately validates the government’s actions in the eyes of the Psychologist. It’s both hopeful, and sad. It evokes feelings of powerlessness, of misinformation, propaganda, and the ever-present fact that we might simply be pawns in this society.
When your leaders determine that the RIGHT thing to do is go to war, and you exist in a world where your morality demands that you conform, how do you live with your actions?
Having just watched Hacksaw Ridge (HR), the thematic similarities between it and this episode of Black Mirror were stark. Desmond Doss from HR felt it was simply immoral to not sign up for the war. It was the only duty he had to fulfill, besides his commitments to God. Infusing his commitment to not kill, yet still enlist, was his way of making sense of the world and coping with the horrors he’d have to endure.
In Men Against Fire, the government simply cut out the middleman. Why invent propaganda and psychological incentive when you can simply have the soldiers literally see the enemy as purely an enemy? Why not make them as efficient as possible? In Black Mirror, our hero agrees to ‘take the Blue Pill’ and remain in the Matrix, so to speak, finding solace in his work and comfort in his augmented reality that felt so real it genuinely IS real.
Ultimately, the main character in Men Against Fire had no choice. His wasn’t like Neo, where he’d go back to regular life and forget everything about his battle versus Zion and the real world. His real world was prison, and suffering, and helplessness. That reality isn’t beautiful, and isn’t tolerable for him. So once again, as he consented before without any pressure at all, he agrees to have his memory wiped and become a soldier of the state.
Men Against Fire, and Black Mirror in general, has a fantastic way of bringing up the very uncomfortable possibilities of our near future, and even our present.
Black Mirror season 3 is currently streaming on Netflix.