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‘Black Mirror,’ virtual reality and the dangers that possibly come with it

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It didn’t come as a shock when Netflix agreed to produce the third season of Black Mirror, the celebrated British anthology series that’s helped to revitalize sci-fi television this decade. It also doesn’t come as a shock that Charlie Brooker’s Twilight Zone-esque third season about technological anxieties and possible futures, does not disappoint!  For a series that taps into the collective unease about our modern technology, what makes Black Mirror most frightening, is how it offers a dark reflection of ourselves. “Playtest,” the second episode of the third season is Black Mirror’s terrifying glimpse at the future of gaming – more specifically, virtual reality and the dangers that possibly come with it. Like most episodes of Black Mirror, “Playtest” is cynical, searing, and often disturbing. Yet, despite the negative view of the future of gaming, there’s an underlying level of deep admiration and appreciation for the industry which should come as no surprise since Brooker himself, is a huge gamer.

Black Mirror PlayTest

“Playtest” begins with an extended first act in which we meet our protagonist Cooper (Wyatt Russell), an American traveling abroad in order to escape his problems back home. During a stop in London, he meets a beautiful woman named Sonja (Hannah John-Kamen) via a Tinder-like app, and the pair soon hit it off. After what was supposed to be a one-night stand, Cooper finds himself stranded in London and is forced to look for work so he can afford to buy a ticket back home. Sonia – herself a gamer – informs him of an opening at a well-known games company testing a new product. It’s good money and left with little choice, Cooper voluntarily submits himself as a test subject. So far, the first act is so unlike what we normally see in Black Mirror but it doesn’t take long before we are introduced to some creepy, pervasive new technology. The product just so happens to be a revolutionary virtual reality headset that inserts a small chip into the neck of the player and functions as the ultimate augmented reality device, with the ability to layer lifelike images and sounds into Cooper’s perception of the world without the need for wires or glasses. In other words, rather than placing you in the game’s world using a set of goggles, the futuristic looking VR contraption instead, brings elements of the game into your mind. Unfortunately, for Cooper, he never stopped to ask what type of games he would be testing. Cooper is placed in a survival horror game – where the device taps into his biggest fears and makes them a (virtual) reality. Not knowing what is real or what’s artificially generated, Cooper is able to feel pain both psychologically and physically. The goal is to see how long he can endure the horror before screaming his safe word and ending the experience.

Black Mirror

“Playtest” is brimming with nods to several popular video games franchises, from Dark Souls to Portal, Bioshock and more. There’s even a clever nod halfway through the episode when Cooper blows on his malfunctioning debit card — a clear reference to a time when kids had to blow on their Nintendo cartridges in order to get them to work properly. It’s no doubt fun spotting all these Easter eggs but “Playtest” doesn’t need to pay homage to any video game to get its point across because it’s evident early on that Cooper’s life is constructed as a series of games. We watch him travel from one country to another (much like moving from one level to the next), working several jobs and overcoming various obstacles in order to make enough money to get by — a parallel not unlike the one between the difficulty and point system in video games. The theme is further echoed in the way he meets Sonja, swiping back and forth on a dating app, no different than any touchscreen handheld game we play on the go. It’s a nifty premise which hews close to something like David Cronenberg’s dark and delirious eXistenZ, and like eXistenZ, experienced gamers should find much to savor through the episode’s unique assessments on the nature of reality as well and our insistence to relinquish complete control over to technology.

Cooper doesn’t think twice about not having control when submitting himself over to test the game because, in Cooper’s mind, technology only betters our lives and video games are designed purely for entertainment. Unfortunately for him, he is wrong. After some successful early tests, Cooper is dispatched to a creepy old mansion where naturally, twists and turns abound. There, he faces off against a gargantuan spider, a classmate who bullied him in high school and then a bizarre amalgamation of the two, that calls to mind Chief Bitores Mendez from Resident Evil 4.

Horror fans should get a kick out of the third act. Director Dan Trachtenberg (who proved an expert in genre conventions with his spine-tingling 10 Cloverfield Lane) makes the most of his confined setting and outstanding cast while finding clever ways to turn the haunted mansion into a wonderful playground for Cooper’s nightmares. A good portion of the episode is a slow burn but once we get inside the dark, moody interior of the establishment, Trachtenberg alternates moods seamlessly, ratcheting tension to a breaking point and then deflating it with dark comedy. He also knows how to construct a perfectly timed jump scare, and when Cooper starts the video game, Trachtenberg delivers enough jolts to recommend this genuinely creepy and deeply disturbing roller coaster ride, despite one major problem…

On paper, “Playtest” is a horror romp that warns of the near-future tech dangers of virtual and augmented reality. It aims to disorient the player and, by proxy, the viewer. There are several fake awakenings, and, eventually, a revelation about Cooper’s deepest fear. Turns out, after losing his father to early onset dementia, Cooper is terrified that he and/or his mother will one day suffer the same fate. There’s an obvious thematic link between Cooper’s fears of dementia and the episode’s depiction of VR technology, but too many ideas get crammed into Brooker’s script, and this connection is never fully explored. It’s a shame really because, its protagonist, Cooper (played by Wyatt Russell, the son of Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell ), is an anomaly in the Black Mirror world: He’s likable and **spoiler** doesn’t deserve his fate. When he faces off against his dementia-stricken mother in the climatic showdown, you can’t help but feel sorry for the guy. Black Mirror is known for delivering a gut punch with its twisted endings, but I can’t help but feel they missed the boat on this one.

-Ricky

 

Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and the NXpress Nintendo Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound On Sight, and host of several podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead podcasts, as well as the Sound On Sight and Sordid Cinema shows. There is nothing I like more than basketball, travelling, and animals. You can find me online writing about anime, TV, movies, games and so much more.

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Watchmen

Watchmen Podcast: Breaking Down “Little Fear of Lightning”

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Watchmen Podcast Episode 5

This week, Watchmen delves into Looking Glass’s past and revisits one of the biggest events from the comic: the “interdimensional” squid attack on New York that kills over three million people and psychologically damages millions more. “Little Fear of Lightning” the finest hour yet, a focused character study that connects past and present in fascinating ways. And as always, there’s a lot to digest.

Our Watchmen podcast will see Simon Howell and an assortment of guests tackle the entire series (or at least the first season). In this fifth episode, Simon Howell, Sean Colletti, and Randy Dankievitch, take a deep dive into “Little Fear of Lightning” and note some of the more astonishing facts of the episode you might have missed.

And for those of you wondering, in order to keep things simple, we’ve decided to upload each episode to the same feed as our other podcast, Before the Internet.

Listen here on iTunes or listen here on Stitcher. 

You can also catch our show on Pocketcast and on Spotify, or simply listen via the player embedded below.

Before_The_Internet_Podcast-2-1024x1024

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Wrestling

The Career of Seth Rollins: From Face to Heel at Lightning Speed

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It wasn’t that long ago that The Shield debuted on Survivor Series, setting the main event careers of three talented wrestlers in motion. Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns, and Seth Rollins all came to the WWE through NXT. In and out of The Shield, each man has held multiple championships and has had great success.

Seth Rollins
The Shield stands together.

These days, look a lot different for the former Shield members. Dean Ambrose left the WWE for AEW to wrestle again as Jon Moxley and Roman Reigns took a step back from the spotlight after warring with cancer. Meanwhile, the career of Seth Rollins has taken a turn of its own.

Becoming Seth Rollins

Colby Lopez joined the WWE in 2010 as part of Florida Championship Wrestling under the name Seth Rollins. He was there when it was re-branded in 2012 as NXT and became their inaugural champion. Seth Rollins turned heel in epic fashion by betraying The Shield and embarking on a huge singles career after his main roster debut.

Seth Rollins heel
Rollins turns heel and betrays The Shield.

Rollins hitting his Shield brothers with a steel chair still rates as one of the most shocking turns in WWE history.

More recently, Rollins had two wars against Brock Lesnar over the Universal Championship. Rollins won the Royal Rumble, using the title shot he earned to beat Lesnar at WrestleMania. Then, Lesnar somehow won a Money in the Bank match he wasn’t technically involved in. He used that shot to get his belt back. Rollins would then reclaim the title at SummerSlam.

Rollins defeats Lesnar at WrestleMania.

It was a repetitive feud.

Rollins vs. Lesnar Into Infinity

The back and forth between Rollins and Lesnar became exhausting to fans. Not shockingly, WWE viewers were already sick of Lesnar being an absentee champion by the point that Reigns finally took him down. When he reclaimed the belt after Roman’s cancer announcement, the focus turned to Rollins hunting Lesnar.

Even when someone else like AJ Styles or Baron Corbin got in the mix, fans knew they wouldn’t win. It was always going to be about Lesnar and Rollins so fans started to turn on Rollins. His Hell in a Cell match against ‘The Fiend’ Bray Wyatt was the final nail.

Top Face or Top Heel?

There was a time long ago that fans over the age of eight cheered for John Cena when he came out to the ring. At some point, it became cooler to boo him. The same is true of Roman Reigns, who had to go through a traumatic personal experience to get fans to ease up on him. In both cases, they were the corporate champions chosen to lead the brand.

In reality, fans didn’t really care if they were good wrestlers or not. It’s just something they chafe against.

The boos echoing through the arena are growing louder and louder for Seth Rollins for similar reasons. That’s due in no small part to the long, tedious promos he’s sent out to give to personally connect with the audience. Play that card too often and the opposite becomes true. WWE was frequently guilty of the same thing with both Cena and Reigns.

Rollins cuts another promo.

Watch the video from the night when Reigns made the announcement of his hiatus to fight cancer. Fans were reflexively booing him because they figured they were in for another long promo. The mood changed quickly when Roman started talking about leukemia.

Things Go Wrong at Hell in a Cell

All of this was already building to a head when Hell in a Cell came along.

Rollins faces The Fiend.

Universal Champion Seth Rollins was set to defend his title against ‘The Fiend’ Bray Wyatt in the titular main event. Unfortunately, WWE had painted themselves into a corner. They wanted Seth to retain, which he did, but couldn’t use the traditional DQ or count out to do it. Instead, WWE went for some weird finish where Seth hurt Wyatt so much so the ref stopped the match.

Essentially, a DQ in a no DQ match.

Rollins became the focus of much of the rage for the bad finish but the feud between him and Wyatt would continue. Wyatt finally won the Universal Championship and took it back to SmackDown. The side effect of this would be Lesnar returning to Raw with the WWE Championship.

It’s inevitable that Rollins and Lesnar will cross paths for the WWE Championship. Unfortunately, fans will have to choose between the two. They’ll end up cheering Rollins on as the lesser of two evils from their perspective.

The main miscalculation that WWE made at Hell in a Cell is the same one they made with Reigns and Cena. They assumed that being the top face in a match makes you the fan-favorite. Bray Wyatt is, by far, the most over wrestler in the company. People love Firefly Fun House and they love ‘The Fiend.’ Rollins simply couldn’t compete as any ending that wasn’t Wyatt with a belt would not be satisfactory to fans.

Seth Rollins’ Next Phase

Now, Rollins is stuck in a weird limbo. The top face on Raw for management that’s morphing into a heel based on fan opinion. His heel run alongside Triple H was some of his best work and he is still a superb in-ring performer. WWE should let what’s going to happen by letting Rollins perform to his strengths.

Let Rollins burn it down as a heel one more time.

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TV

Watchmen Season 1 Episode Five Review: “Little Fear of Lightning”

Watchmen delivers its finest hour yet, a focused character study that connects past and present in fascinating ways.

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Watchmen Little Fear of Lightning

“Little Fear of Lightning,” the most masterfully crafted episode of Watchmen yet, is the most Lindelof-ass hour of the series, uniting itself around a single image – the fun house mirror – and projecting out the author’s many, many thoughts on identity, reason, morality… and specifically, justice. The gods are unkind in Lindelof’s work, and the cosmic injustice of Looking Glass’s life is laid bare in “Little Fear of Lightning,” an hour that beautifully walks the line between character piece and narrative fulcrum.

Watchmen is firmly back on track with “Little Fear of Lightning,” a thematically rich hour that firmly embeds itself in the history of its inspiration, and yet never feels handcuffed by it.

Opening on the fateful night of Eleven-Two (the day Veidt’s monstrous concoction was dropped on New York), “Little Fear of Lightning” is an origin story of Matt Jamison-esque proportions. Like Matt on The Leftovers, Wade is a man of faith, to an overwhelming degree: he believes the government’s story of Eleven-Two being an alien attack so much, he lives in paranoid fear of it happening again. He has a special (albeit buggy) security system, attends a support group for other survivors, and even bases his masked identity around the moment where his religion changed from fearing an ethereal white dude, to a big ass motherfuckin’ squid.

Watchmen Little Fear of Lightning

From the episode’s opening scene, “Little Fear of Lightning” drenches itself in Watchmen‘s history; from the Knot Top-ish girl who steals all Wade’s clothes (and promptly dies a gruesome death), to references to Veidt’s old perfume company, the fifth hour of Watchmen lives in reverence to its source material. In a way, it turns Wade – a dude whose obsession and fear ruined his marriage, and left him a paranoid life of bad luck and solititude – into the series’ own Rorschach for a moment, as the man with the uncanny ability to spot a liar suddenly realizes he’s the one whose been played for the past three-plus decades.

Though ostensibly a gentler, slightly more gathered individual, the similarities between Watchmen‘s original protagonist and Wade as “Little Fear of Lightning” continues are potent, and help further the aura of reflection and redefinition (… like a Rorschach test would) that is the episode’s backbone. The first two acts spend the episode neatly arranging the pieces of his strange, quiet life – and the third act brings them all crashing to the ground, forcing Wade to cling to the very few fundamental beliefs he has: mistrust and fear, the very same tools the Seventh Kavalry’s inspiration derived his sense of purpose from.

(I mean, he even eats a can of beans this episode… how obvious could the parallels get?)

Watchmen Little Fear of Lightning

His final question – the one he proposes to Night just before letting her into Laurie’s trap – is “Is anything true?” It’s a question I imagine most Americans post Eleven-Two (or in our world, 9/11) have had to ask themselves over the years. Steel beams in our universe, sentient tentacles in Watchmen‘s; the point is, whatever the actual facts of either event are, there are always questions bad people are willing to provide answers to.

In this case, it is Ozymandias and Senator Joe Keene that provide Wade with the answers he never knew he wanted; and it is the second time everything in his world is utterly and absolutely shattered. After learning Judd and Joe Keene worked together to form the “peace” in Tulsa – and that the Kavalry is experimenting with an outlawed teleporter, for an “original idea” they have – Wade watches the infamous Ozymandias video, where he details his plans to save the world to future-President Redford.

This all comes after he watches his ex-wife incinerate a puppy in front of him (it was just a little bit too small, after all), and the first girl he’s kissed in ages reveals herself to be part of the white nationalist group he’s been at war with. In a series fascinated with the power of perspective, “Little Fear of Lightning” spends its entire time treating Looking Glass like a Rubik’s Cube, the patterns of his life rearranging over and over until they’re a complete mess of half-truths, disappointments, and traumatic memories, all vying for absolute control of Wade’s sanity.

Watchmen Little Fear of Lightning

There isn’t enough Reflecteen in the world to protect Wade’s mind from the truth, the single most weaponized element of Watchmen‘s 2019 America. From the moment Veidt completed his creature and killed his entire creative team, the truth of what really happened in 1985 has rested with a handful of individuals; one a god, another an imprisoned genius, and a third one of the most pragmatic federal officers in the country. They’ve successfully protected the lie in the name of world peace; but as that dam prepares to break, the Seventh Kavalry is poised to deliver a historical moment of such devastating, unfixable damage, it would be a massacre on a level no physical, traditional weapon could ever replicate, even nuclear (which makes me think about the scientific theories around nuclear winter could mitigating the effects of climate change).

In Watchmen‘s 2019, the government (we can assume) is continuing to drop squid fall on the nation, a little reminder of the thunder brought down in the episode’s opening moments; and as that realization crosses Wade’s fact, it provides deep, necessary context to how the world of Watchmen operates on a fundamental level. The ever-present threat of another disaster serves two purposes; it reminds humans to be obedient and fearful… and it also ensures said population is cognizant of their own mortality, which helps give context to some of the general disregard for the sanctity of life we’ve seen throughout the series.

Watchmen Little Fear of Lightning

“Little Fear of Lightning” is able to do all this, and still leave plenty of room for Tim Blake Nelson to chew up the scenery, as Wade’s world is broken into jagged pieces around him once again, which is just an absolute pleasure to watch. His even-mannered temper, even when everthing is blowing fucking mind, subtly gives room for the thematic material room to shine: his performance is careful and deliberate, but measured in a way to carefully build out the traumatic ironies of his character (and unfortunately, what appears to be a potentially terrible fate).

After a couple weeks of thumb twiddling, Watchmen is firmly back on track with “Little Fear of Lightning,” a thematically rich hour that firmly embeds itself in the history of its inspiration, and yet never feels handcuffed by it. It is a creative tightrope to walk that is downright mesmerizing when pulled off as it is here, a re-purposing of the novel’s ideals and ruminations in ways that feel prescient and fresh, rather than stale and imitative.

Not only is “Little Fear of Lightning” a great hour, but is an absolutely essential one, the moment where Lindelof and company finally spread their wings, briding the gap between past and present, setting themselves free in the process (as the preview for next week’s episode proves; this show is about to get fucking nuts, and quickly). Most importantly, it reminds us the absolute power of truth, perspective, and just how fucked up things can get when “both sides” end up being members of the same team. As normal as it looks on the surface, Watchmen‘s world is a fun house mirror of distorted truths and elaborate, false representations of self: I think Wade might agree the only time anyone is being completely honest with themselves and the world around them, is when we’re completely naked and alone, and there’s truly nowhere to hide.

Other thoughts/observations:

Laurie: “I’m the FBI. We bug shit.”

Deadwood‘s Paula Malcomson plays the woman who seduces (and manipulates) Wade into his meeting with Joe Keene. She is one of my favorite actors, and if you haven’t seen her in the Deadwood movie, you really should.

Ozymandias’ prediction was for Redford to become president in exactly 7 years, which he did. 7 years imprisoned, 7 years until president, all signs pointing to episode 7 as the one Where The Big Thing Happens… Lindelof sure loves patterns and numbers, and this is one of the more fun ones he’s done in awhile.

It appears Ozymandias is jailed on a moon of Jupiter… which isn’t Dr. Manhattan’s favorite planet, which may be a hint towards who imprisoned him. Then again, the Warden mentions a “him” when he talks about the god who abandoned him and the clones.

boy, if this episode had aired six months from now, “squid pro quo” would feel way too on-the-nose.

In this week’s American Hero Story: two heroes have gay sex. Weakest scene of the episode by a long shot, though Wade’s nacsent curiosity gives it a strange hint of subtext.

Keene, grinning: “I’m not a murderer… I’m a politician.”

Ozymandias, in the present, takes a trip to one of Jupiter’s moons, and makes an SOS sign out of his servant’s bodies that a Trieu satellite captures. (It reads “SAVE ME D”… could he be asking Dr. Manhattan for help?)

Angela is certainly in for a fun time, after downing a bunch of pills consisting of her grandfather’s memories while getting arrested. See you on the other side, Sister Night!

Are they going to do anything with Red Scare and Panda? I’m starting to wonder if these two side characters will end up the weakest elements of the series.

In this world, Steven Spielberg directed Pale Horse instead of Schindler’s List – the visual motifs remained the same, only the topic matter of a more recent act of mass murder.

Though the references to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea are more obvious (Friends of Nemo, the episode title, etc.), there are hints of Through the Looking-Glass in it, as well, as Wade goes through the literal rabbit hole of America’s hidden truth.

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