Monday, May 17, 2021

Black Mirror Revisit: Playtest


Last year, I compiled a non-definitive ranking of Black Mirror episodes. Once a month, I revisit an episode, starting from the bottom. Today, we tackle my 14th seeded choice, Season 3's Playtest.

The Talent:
Playtest is another Charlie Brooker script, but the direction comes courtesy of Dan Trachtenberg, who also gave us the good-but-better-the-more-you-think-about-it 10 Cloverfield Lane. Our lead is the achingly likable Wyatt Russell and his main costar is none other than Wunmi Mosaku, who, with Lovecraft Country and His House, has rather immediately become one of the most exciting actors working today.

The Setup: Cooper is your definitive bearded backpacking American adventurer, leaving behind his distant widowed mother to travel the world and try to move past the recent death of his much more beloved father. When his credit cards are compromised, Cooper finds a quick job testing the newest video game technology from the Nintendo-like SaitoGemu.

Despite reasonable warnings to turn off his cell phone, Cooper can't resist taking a few pics in the hopes of selling the information to a high bidder. Led by Katie, he proceeds with the official "playtest", which puts him in a Victorian mansion filled with his own subconsciously simulated fears.  

The Ending: As Cooper's visions become realer and more horrifying, the test is forcibly ended only to be revealed to, well, never have started. Because he didn't turn off his phone, a ring from his mother when the technology was being implanted caused some kind of surge, killing the player before he could actually press start.

The Theme: In some ways, Playtest's gotcha ending undermines what it's actually trying to do in terms of its story. Cooper's psyche being invaded only to create its own beasts is clearly something Brooker wants you to sit with, but the "HE WAS ACTUALLY DEAD ALONG" rug pull is so, well, specific (particularly to certain viewers with strong feelings on cell phone abuse) that it's hard to leave the episode--even on a second viewing--without much else.

The Verdict: It's hard to not enjoy watching Wyatt Russell. I'm usually predisposed to judging the children of celebrities a bit harsher than your average worked-really-hard-and-nailed-just-the-right-audition civilian actors who have a much harder, often impossible hill to climb, but Russell is so gosh darn charismatic (a similar trait he shares with his dad) that Playtest, which rests entirely upon his very tall shoulders, is, if nothing else, a compelling ride with a guy you can't help but like. In the wrong hands, Coop could have been insufferable, an ugly American millennial who makes mistakes and pays for them. It's hard not to be reminded often, as I and probably no one else in the world is, of just how wrong this goes in The Darkest Hour, which ALSO begins with a flight attendant having to ask an American tourist to turn off his phone. But see, I wanted Max.... and the rest of that cast to die a horrible death because they were, well, just douchebags. I'm sure Wyatt Russell could play a villain, and I'll pay to see it, but by golly, the dude has it.

Technology Tip: As I've been known to shout whisper at many a stranger in a movie theater, when the rule is given, listen and turn off your motherf*cking phone.

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale:4/10
I mean, by GOSH is Russell someone you don't want to see die, but I'm old enough to have experienced the first wave of cell phone abuse, and therefore, I have a hard time being too crushed by the tragic but very avoidable passing of someone who didn't obey a very simple rule

Quality Scale: 6/10
Of course the episode looks good, right down to the CGI intended to look like CGI, and the haunted house theme has its scares, but the overall effect is so inconsistent that I still think this one belongs in its rightful middle of the pack place

Enjoyment Scale: 7/10
All that being said, Wyatt Russell is so effortlessly enjoyable to watch that Playtest is never a slog. I don't love a lot of its decisions, but I certainly didn't mind my time with it again.

Up Next (Month):
We dive all the way back to season 1 with the dystopian 15 Million Merits

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