“Metalhead” was written by Brooker and directed by David Slade, a stylish visual craftsman who’s been behind some of the best-looking TV of recent memory, including Hannibal and American Gods. Slade got his start in music videos, and it shows in the crisp black-and-white photography of “Metalhead” and its spare, frightening world design. The story is set in a post-apocalyptic Britain of some sort, mostly taking place on the sweeping Scottish moors. We’re not told what ruined the world or why it is the way it is, nor do we need to know. This is just an eye-popping tale of survival, pitting an empty-handed woman, Bella (Maxine Peake), against some lingering remnant of a technological police state.
The titular “Metalhead” is a “dog,” a terrier-sized cybernetic drone that roves around on little feet and shoots and stabs anyone it comes across without remorse. This drone can hack any door or computer with a USB key; it also has a little bit of trouble climbing things. Apart from that, it doesn’t have any discernible motivation or personality; it’s just a faceless enemy for our hero to do battle with.
I prefer a grim Black Mirror episode that’s entirely about mood and suspense to one like “Crocodile,” which tries to make a larger point but never comes close to hitting the target. It also helps that the violence in “Metalhead” is brief and shocking, arriving in short spurts any time the drone comes across a living target. Most of the drama is wrapped up in wondering what will come next, rather than figuring out the extent of some real-life allegory, which makes the dark mood easier to put up with.
Another thing in its favor? How short it is! Not to sound like a broken record, but there’s almost no Black Mirror episode that wouldn’t be improved by a trimmed running time, even really good ones like “USS Callister” (which was a comparably roomy 75 minutes long). “Metalhead” didn’t have enough time to wear out its welcome with me, nor did it waste a moment on things that didn’t matter to its primary narrative. Our hero begins her journey with two other scavengers, who are quickly wiped out by the “dog”; she spends the rest of the action fleeing its Terminator-like pursuit, including hiding in a tree, taking advantage of its sleep mode to sneak away, and finally locating a shotgun to take it out once and for all.
“Metalhead” doesn’t play up the gore, unlike many one-person narratives about survival in the wilderness (though there is one pretty gross sequence involving the removal of a tracking bug with a knife). The visuals were what carried me through the quieter moments, with Slade making sure every glimpse of the empty moors in high-contrast black-and-white photography jumps out at the viewer. Peake, whom I best know from U.K. comedies like Dinnerladies and Shameless, also keeps things grounded with her understated performance, which could have easily leaned on her terror and instead focuses on her resolve to survive.