I love instances of synchronicity, where image and sound become something special, reaching some other cinematic level through the sublime combination of craft and music. Here’s two examples; two episodes of Black Mirror that each attain some extra level of greatness because the great scripts and performances are accompanied by utterly perfect soundtracks that enable a special emotional ‘kick’-
Black Mirror: Nosedive
Finally subscribing to Netflix enabled me to at last catch up with Black Mirror and I started with the episode that intrigued me the most- and it was the Max Richter soundtrack that got me there. I’ve been listening to Richter’s music for years and his many original albums and scores have been one of the soundtracks to my life and work commutes, and I’ve been very curious about this particular work. Fortunately the episode itself blew me away.
Nosedive is about a society of social media-obsessed people whose lives revolve about their status, their score that they carry everywhere and which is governed by what everyone else thinks about them, their lives, their achievements, their posts on social media. Peer pressure is everything- you are your score, your rating, and its mostly governed by everyone else. So smile, look happy, be content, and if you mark someone else highly they might do the same for you too. The more people you know, the more likes and ratings and ‘hit’s’ you get, the higher your score, the higher your worth, and the greater your happiness.
It really doesn’t feel that far into the future. Somewhere around the next corner, maybe, and future-fiction in the grandest tradition of The Twilight Zone. Being a Black Mirror story, this is naturally a cautionary tale, a pastel nightmare. Lacie Pound (Bryce Dallas Howard, utterly wonderful here) lives what is on the surface a fairly idyllic life, but her social standing and life- opportunities are squarely defined by her score of 4.2, a measure openly noted by everyone she comes in contact with. Everybody wears contact lenses that work a little like Google Glass, augmenting what they see with a virtual avatar, like a numeric hologram that floats like a Facebook Halo by their heads. A simple number that somehow summarises everyone’s life and worth.
The insidious part of this is that this number limits your life choices- quality, life-changing loans/discounts are only offered to people rated 4.5, the quality of your job or the car you drive or the place where you live can all be impacted by your score. In Nosedive, Lacie needs a rating of 4.5 to enable her to receive a discount that will enable her to live in a plush apartment and all the opportunities it will give her. She needs to be more popular, to be ‘better’, and her efforts spiral into a descent into horror as circumstances get the better of her and her rating actually plunges, forcing her to reassess her life and the ways she lives and measures success and those around her.
Nosedive looks utterly brilliant, all pastel colours and clean art direction, a world designed by Apple for IPad people, it pictures a utopian world that looks perfect but is, naturally, rotten to the core and in just the same way as the best Twilight Zone episodes did, the story forces viewers to consider how it colours our own world and our own values and perceptions. The cast is terrific, particularly Bryce Dallas Howard, who blew me away her with a charming and powerful performance that is career-defining in my book. The heart and soul of the episode though is Richters music, full of emotion and pathos, fragile and tender as the veneer of idyllic perfection is stripped away to reveal the real horror beneath. The soundtrack is barely 24 minutes long so it’s woefully slim for an album, but here is a case where quality wins out over quantity. The music is quite haunting and adds substantially to the impact of the episode.
Black Mirror: San Junipero
Clint Mansell’s score manages the same with the next episode of Black Mirror that I watched; San Junipero. Its a 1980s-flavoured score, its electronics sounding like something John Carpenter might have written for one of his films of that period. Its a rather warm and tender soundtrack in spite of it being synthesisers, suffused with a sadness that permeates the episode itself.
On a neon-drenched Saturday night in a 1980’s Californian seaside town, two young women meet in a nightclub- shy, inhibited Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and confident, mysterious Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). rather a case of opposites attracting, the two begin a relationship, but as usual for Black Mirror, something feels ‘off’, something about the place and the people and obscure offhand references to limited time and it always being a Saturday night with a deadline of midnight.
The twist is that the seaside town of San Junipero isn’t real- its fake, a virtual world in which the two women are escaping from their harsh realities. In the real world, both girls are actually old women near the end of their lives, living far apart and never destined to meet. Yorkie has been in a coma for 40 years, and Kelly is a widow and bereaved mother who is dying from cancer. San Junipero offers a few hours of escape, but they have the option -as their real bodies fail and they die- to stay in San Junipero forever. Yorkie is keen to do so, but Kelly wants to die and try her chances for a real heaven and a real reunion with her dead husband and daughter. The love affair seems ultimately doomed, and Yorkie destined to spend eternity in her virtual seaside heaven alone.
Beautifully acted and sensitively told, for me, the story was as much a study of what is ‘real’, as much as it was a love story. There were some pretty deep ideas being shuffled around. The guarantee of a virtual heaven in San Junipero against the act of faith in a real heaven was an interesting concept, and the possibility of humanity through technology being offered the comfort blanket of a virtual heaven, versus the unproven promises of religion, seemed fascinating. At the end of the episode, we see a vast hall full of servers in which no doubt thousands or even millions of dead people live forever- literally, per the Belinda Carlisle song that opens the episode, Heaven is a place on Earth.
Or is it? In a similar way to the technological promises of Star Trek‘s transporters or Altered Carbons‘ stacks and ‘sleeves’ offering immortality, the seductive promises of San Junipero surely lack substance. The way I see it, the transporters of Star Trek are actually rather scary- people are scanned, disintegrated, and then re-integrated, or copied, at their destination. The Kirk that appears on a planet is surely a copy of the one that was vanished from the Enterprise – looking and feeling identical, with identical memories etc, but surely not the same Kirk. In Altered Carbon, the stacks are hard-drive backups of the real people, simulacra that when re-loaded into new sleeves are just that, copies, perfect in every detail and convinced that they are real, but just duplicates nonetheless. In San Junipero, Yorkie really dies and her brain dies too- it’s a download or copy of her brain waves that lives forever in the virtual heaven of San Junipero. The ideas and promises of the technologies are seductive but they are not real. Or maybe it’s real enough for the virtual Yorkie in her virtual world, as is the false immortality that stacks and ‘sleeves’ offer in Altered Carbon. Maybe technology really will save us. Maybe copying/downloading our intellects is future salvation, or maybe our souls are salvation and those digital intellects redundant.
Or maybe I’m just overthinking stuff. God, I love sci-fi. Its some crazy shit at times.
This music is real though- Richter’s Nosedive and Mansell’s San Junipero are wonderfully evocative, powerfully affecting scores. And these two episodes of Black Mirror are two of the best pieces of television I have seen in years.