The season 5 premiere of Black Mirror titled “Striking Vipers” is a well-oiled computer machine. Like gears, its nifty visual flourish, thought provoking ideas with regards to technology, and well-constructed performances work well in tandem to create a solid entry of the sci-fi anthology.
The episode sees Charlie Brooker returning to an examination of video game-based tech. Last year the series writer/creator released the multi-choice behemoth Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, a movie whose narrative paths honed in on a teen obsessed with creating a video game during the ’80s. This time, Brooker examines society’s relationship to game technology that’s closer to what we see currently, though much more advanced.
The plot centers on Danny (Anthony Mackie) and Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) — two friends who find themselves at different stages in life. In their 20s, the men lived with youthful exuberance; their nightly activities ranged from clubbing with their roommate Theo (Nikki Beharie) to late night video game sessions before work the next day. Now, 11 years later, Danny is married to Theo and living life as a family man while Karl is living life as a bachelor. The two reconnect at Danny’s 38th birthday party where Karl presents his old friend a gift – Striking Vipers X; it’s the latest installment of a game they bonded over years ago.
This new version is as if the circuitry wires of virtual reality headsets of our time were injected with technological steroids. With VR, both are transported into the photo-realistic looking game and choose to inhabit the bodies of their old favorite characters. Danny plays as Lance (Ludi Lin) – a character whose rock hard abs don’t anchor his light as a feather jumping ability. Karl plays as Roxette (Pom Klementieff) – a character whose strong kicking ability comes so naturally she can balance on one leg, kick her opponent, and still have time to examine her nails mid-fight.
Episode director Owen Harris (Misfits, The Twilight Zone) presents an episode highlight as Danny and Karl have their first virtual combat encounter; it truly feels as though a Street Fighter-like game has come to life in live-action. In one stylized beat, Karl-as-Roxette sweeps the legs out from under Danny-as-Lance while screaming, “Windmill wipe-out.” Danny spirals through the air cartoonishly before slamming on the ground.
While fighting in Striking Vipers X, the two begin a physical relationship that’s exhilarating for the both of them, and it’s one that’s sexual in nature. As Danny and Karl continue a series of passionate VR hook ups, it complicates their interpersonal relationships with each other in the real world and with those close to them.
Brooker cooks up a lot of interesting ideas in his penned script. For years, various video games have allowed us to take control of and/or create characters that are like or unlike ourselves; in 2011 vg247 talked to game developer BioWare whose sci-fi RPG series Mass Effect allowed players to craft their own main character and personalize their narrative. During the discussion, BioWare marketing team member David Silverman said that at the time, “13 percent of Mass Effect players use the default [protagonist] Commander Shepard: the remaining 83 percent customise their hero, changing [character] class, abilities, appearance – and gender.”
With VR allowing us the opportunity to start stepping into these digital bodies, it’s fascinating to think about to how this intersects with topics related to both identity and sexuality. At one point in the episode, Karl compares the feeling of being in Roxette’s body to the feeling of being in his own. “[One’s] a guitar solo, the other’s a whole fucking orchestra,” he says.
Bringing weight to this episode is its core cast who play Danny, Theo, and Karl. In interviews and other roles, Mackie is almost always brimming with charisma, and it’s impressive to see him play the very opposite with Danny. “You know the thing about you? Sometimes you just sort of go away,” Theo says to Danny during the episode. Mackie’s character is someone feeling very much stagnant in his life, and the actor conveys this well. In one scene, we see Danny looking on as Theo and his son play on a swing set. The husband and wife lock eyes briefly and Mackie’s performance makes them feel like they’re on opposite ends of a football field, even though they’re physically very close.
This dynamic between the two characters gives Beharie the chance to showcase her dramatic chops; Theo struggles in trying to find various ways to connect with her husband, who feels so distant. “I’ll always want you,” Danny says when Theo confronts him about his behavior. “No. You know what I mean, me. This. This,” she says, pointing to herself; you truly feel the pain of a woman at the end of her rope in trying to make this relationship work.
Abdul-Mateen II also gets a lot of dramatic range to play with this episode as Karl. He’s particularly a highlight at the beginning of the episode when Karl and Danny are reconnecting at the Danny’s party; the performer brings a warmth to the role that really helps sell the feeling of two friends catching up. “You’re walking around like a fucking Frankenstein movie,” Karl says as he playfully imitates the Mary Shelley creation teasing Danny about his stiff movement due to his knee.
All these elements of “Striking Vipers” create a satisfying watching experience. Like any well-made computer it occasionally has its hiccups here and there – a scene or two feels a little slow paced; however, at the end of the day it competently does its job and is an episode you should watch if you’re a fan Black Mirror.