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Men Against Fire proposes one of the most unique, non-literal interpretations of warfare within the last 5 years—it’s a shame the episode seems work better on paper than it does in execution. Black Mirror’s penchant for introducing complex social themes and exhilarating, idea-driven concepts this season seem to have turned completely ass backwards, always managing somehow to take these deeply complex and intriguing ideas and making them into unengaging dime-store narratives. Men Against Fire is set in an unspecified future and in an unspecified country. The point of this being that the specificities of certain conflicts don’t really matter when fundamental moralities are inherent in every conflict.
The fact of the matter is that almost every conceptual choice in this episode works to the story’s function—yes, every moral revelation and every plot twist—but Charlie Brooker and, director, Jakob Verbruggen are so monotone and undemanding in how they choose to present the “ultimate” message that the two may as well have been delivering them door-to-door in hand-written hallmark cards. The story is cookie-cutter, never committing to its tooth-and-nail violence or its steamy, psycho-sexual subplot. Malachi Kirby (the episode’s protagonist “Stripes”) never phones it in, but the script offers so little in the way of real emotion and psychology—Brooker seems only devoted in exploring the moral subtext of Stripes’ actions that he begins to feel less like an actual character than a headpiece for the story’s cut-and-dry morality shtick.
Two well-established talents, Michael Kelly (playing a seedy military psychologist) and Sarah Snook (a hardnosed military leader), are afforded so little to work with that they themselves seem even more insignificant as characters, feeling more ornamental to the episode than anything else. The one memorable performance comes from Madeline Brewer as the trigger happy and xenophobic Raiman, nicknamed “Hunter”, who boasts enough testosterone-fed unpredictability to underline moments with a much-needed psychotic and sexual tension to counterbalance the episode’s dingy grey color-palette and the script’s dryness. She also seems to provide the episode with its only actual conflict.
If you’re an avid reader of science fiction you’re probably aware that the idea of universal morality in distant-future warfare is hardly a new idea—across decades, authors like Robert A. Heinlein, Joe Haldeman and Orson Scott Card continuously pass the torch, reminding us new ideas and arguments can lurk inside any creative perception. Charlie Brooker—at his best—reminds us that even as warfare advances, notions of immorality and morality remain the same. It’s a shame he couldn’t think of a better way to distill his ideas into something more digestible. Men Against Fire can be remarkably resourceful—Brooker himself based the show’s concept of various true-life works of psychologists studying the Second World War—but without these “cold hard facts” backing him up everything else about the episode is gutless and artless.
Men Against Fire is a meandering bore, not even able to proffer the visual flare making even the most mediocre Black Mirror episode an aesthetic accomplishment.