Why the USS CALLISTER worked so well while METALHEAD turned meh

BLACK MIRROR is a beautifully strange British sci-fi series playing on this thing called Netflix, except they call it “streaming” now and you can do it on your phone, PC, iPad, Nook or 65-inch plasma wallscreen.

Each episode is different, and the showrunners take massive, massive risks. They’re not afraid to fail.

This season, everybody seems to love USS CALLISTER, which is a genuinely great episode starring Meth Damon from BREAKING BAD.

Here’s the trailer:

And here’s that same actor rocking the role of Todd in BREAKING BAD:

The other episode I truly, madly and deeply wanted to see this season is METALHEAD, an entirely black-and-white story about an apocalyptic world. Check out the trailer:

So: why does USS CALLISTER work so well while METALHEAD fizzles out at the end?

There’s nothing here about the acting, the sets, the special effects or the directing. All are top notch.

What’s different is the writing.

The trick is, every episode in this series is a horror story. You can say it’s sci-fi, but that’s the setting, not the story.

Horror stories are about punishment. The monster is really the hero, and everybody dies in the end except for the monster, who comes back for endless sequels.

Good horror movies show the people who die first, committing sins they’ll get punished for later. In slasher films, it’s teenagers typically drinking and carousing and breaking the rules. In other horror movies, scientists (and society) get punished for being arrogant enough to think they could invent some insane new technology that, of course, turns on them in the end.

Bad horror movies reverse this and make the regular actors into heroes and the monster into a villain that dies in the end. Doesn’t feel right. That’s a different kind of story with different beats and twists.

The type of story where good guys kill the monster is what Blake Snyder nicknamed Monster in the House, where there’s a monster in an enclosed place, and either you’re going to kill it or it’s going to kill you. That’s a primal story, something that touches us deep in our caveman souls, and you can see the same essential beats in movies that seem dramatically different: JAWS, ALIENS and FATAL ATTRACTION aren’t really a horror, a sci-fi and a domestic drama–they’re the same story in different settings.

USS CALLISTER is actually Monster in the House instead of horror. There’s a monster in an enclosed place–the starship–and the crew is either gonna kill him or get tortured and killed, forever, by an all-powerful bully who created this world. It takes a lot of creativity and guts for the crew to beat him in the end, and it feels right. They deserve their freedom and he’s a monster who deserves his fate.

METALHEAD is a horror story where everybody dies in the end, except the monsters. Where it goes wrong people don’t get what they deserve. The monster is punishing everyone for a sin you never witness, which makes all the deaths caused by the killer robots feel senseless.

This is why horror movies always start by showing the sinners running around, committing the sins they’ll be punished for later. It doesn’t matter how good-looking and wholesome the teenage actors in a slasher film are, they’re going to die for their sins. Same thing with horror movies with scientists trying to play God: they might be great actors, and the entire team may not be evil, but the whole lot of them get punished for the sin of thinking they could (a) make an army of robots to do all the work, (b) genetically engineer a way to life forever or (c) create super-smart sharks with lasers.

If we had seen the original sin in METALHEAD, and the characters who all die were somehow associated with that sin, then it would feel right for them all to get punished. Instead, the killer robots seem off. It feels like the most likely explanation is whoever created and programmed security robots for warehouses did waaaaay too good of a job. Now if that man and his team got killed by his own creations, the audience would swallow it.

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