Black Mirror: Men Against Fire
Interpreting or adapting history for television is always risky business, even if the adaption is only allegorical. We humans have a long history of war and violence against one another, so it was a matter of time before Charlie Brooker turned his attention towards the future of warfare. Men Against Fire is not the glamorous utopia we were presented with in Nosedive or San Junipero, it’s far grittier, darker and malevolent.
Malachi Kirby plays Stripe, an earnest, sharp-shooting soldier tasked with the joint mission of eliminating all ‘roaches’. With him comes the equally sharp yet admittedly more sadistic Raiman (Madeline Brewer) and their commanding officer Medina (Sarah Snook). The team are fitted with standardised technological contact lenses that allow them to map out their territories and plan their attacks using holographic software. Roaches, by the way, are the grotesque and malicious creatures that exist to pillage the lands of innocent humans. On his first mission, Stripe efficiently slays two roaches. He doesn’t leave unscathed though, a roach managed to zap him with a strange sonic screwdriver device. Intermittently over the following days, his eyewear is annoyingly temperamental. With this in mind, I thought the episode might end with Stripe metamorphosing into a roach and the military eventually killing him, it’d have that dark irony that Black Mirror has become synonymous with. But a far more intelligent and less predictable ending was reached. It is made clear that roaches are in fact humans; they only appear otherwise because of the software installed into each soldier’s eyes. The entire time, Stripe had been killing his own.
It’s easy to look for allusion in film; we all know that Animal Farm is an allegory to the Russian revolution and that District 9 makes use of the apartheid in South Africa. But with Charlie Brooker’s Men Against Fire – its references are so broad that it’s hard to label the episode a translation of a single chapter in history. There are obvious comparisons to be made between the Nazis hunt for the Jews and the military’s hunt for ‘roaches’; the latter even uses the term ‘roach lover’ when referring to an individual hiding the persecuted. Refusing to recognise Jews as humans is another way in which the holocaust could have been the starting point for Brooker’s Men Against Fire. In some ways, the episode reminds me of the horrific opening sequence to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds – the character of Raiman feels like it owes a lot to Christoph Waltz in the Tarantino epic. By that analogy, who is Stripe’s psychologist, Doctor Arquette? Ernst Röhm? Joseph Goebbels?
Arquette (Michael Kelly) seems to be running the show as far as the genocide is concerned. His hatred is manifested in the blissfully evil monologues he delivers without wincing and his concluding speech is particularly horrifying, leaving viewers feeling uneasy. The choice of Michael Kelly in this role is an expert bit of casting on Black Mirror’s part. So is Madeline Brewer in the role of Raiman. Her unrelentingly thuggish delivery accentuates the distressing story being told: “We ought to burn the whole forest down – give those roaches nowhere to run”, she announces without remorse. Brewer also thrills in Orange is the New Black, another of Netflix’s original shows. Ariane Labed plays Catarina in the episode, the ‘roach’ to show their true nature to Stripe. Labed provides the only hint of humanism and emotion in the episode, she upsets and moves viewers in a brief but well-executed monologue. The episode’s protagonist (or, perhaps later, antagonist), Stripe, is a multifaceted character that the audience must learn to understand. Malachi Kirby shows us all sides to his soldier, but is perhaps most vulnerable in the abstract dream sequences we are presented with. It’s a great performance with enough empathy to help viewers relate to him.
I must admit that the ‘men are the real villains’ narrative feels slightly exhaustive and overdone in the first half of the episode, but belief in the story is quickly regained with Stripe’s dramatic realisation. The plot is like something out of a Margaret Atwood novel, and the origins of the story are fascinating (it’s based on a book about how soldiers failed to fire in wars because of their innate humanity). Explorative of the human capacity for evil, Men Against Fire is thrilling, thought-provoking and terrifying. For me, it’s up there with Shut Up and Dance – one of the best episodes of the season.
The entire third season of Black Mirror is available to stream on Netflix now.