Black Mirror: USS Callister (Review)

Director: Toby Haynes
Starring: Jesse Plemons, Cristin Milioti, Jimmi Simpson, Michaela Coel, Billy Magnussen, Milanka Brooks, Osy Ikhile, Paul G. Raymond

The Overview
A woman wakes up on a Star Trek-esque ship where the crew praise their all knowing and fearless captain. (Source: IMDb)

The Review
Anthology series Black Mirror from the brain of Charlie Brooker has always been known for doing the unexpected, and on first appearances, this opening episode to the fourth season (now streaming on Netflix), looks as if it is about to boldly go where no episode of Black Mirror has gone before! 

For fans of Star Trek, the first look on board the USS Callister will stir up warm feelings of nostalgia, and indeed the brassy score from Daniel Pemberton helps to cement this even further. Of course, this being Black Mirror, all is not as it seems and we’re soon crashing back down to earth to realise that the crewmates of “Captain Daly” are in fact the real-life work colleagues of a Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), the Chief Technical Officer of tech company Callister Inc. who develop an immersive virtual reality game known as “Infinity”. Fans of Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One will probably be drawing comparisons here with the Oasis, and with immersive gaming becoming even more prevalent for us today, this is an episode which doesn’t appear to be from a world too unlike our own, despite the initial red herring.

As the episode unfolds, we learn that Robert is a bit of a loner; ostracized by his work colleagues who comment that he can be a bit “starey”, he locks himself away in his office seemingly desperate to escape to the alternative reality he has created for himself. In the comfort of his own home, Robert has a rogue version of Infinity, built by him for him only and taking inspiration from his favourite show, the Star Trek-esque, “Space Fleet”. With the arrival of a new member of staff at Callister Inc., the wide-eyed Nanette (Cristin Milioti), Robert takes a liking to her and this is when things start to take a turn; as you would expect from Black Mirror!

Capturing her DNA, Robert is able to transfer a copy of Nanette into his game, a world in which he is the hero, he commands his fleet, he always saves the day, and he always gets the girl…s. It is a world totally apart from his own, and whilst there is that initial pang of sadness for this character who is obviously downtrodden and mistreated in the real world, his desires manifest themselves in terrifying and unexpected ways.

Jesse Plemons does often get typecast as a villain, or at least a bit of an outcast, but he is really quite excellent in this role. In USS Callister, he plays a terrifying and intense villain in a quiet and unsettling manner, resulting in a genuinely unhinged performance. Where this episode falters slightly is in the fact that it doesn’t explore enough of why the real-life Robert is the way that he is. He is portrayed as the archetypal loner, the quiet and nerdy type, but it doesn’t offer a satisfactory explanation for why he would act the way he does, and it would have been great to have explored this in more detail, perhaps through flashbacks. 

The supporting cast are all great however, and fresh from her small part in another Black Mirror episode, Nosedive, Michaela Cole proves that she is intensely watchable in absolutely anything. Carrying much of the second half of this episode, Cristin Milioti is also fantastic, and it is great to see a strong-willed female character take the spotlight. 

Whilst this episode is full of tension and has some deeply unsettling undertones, it is not as devastating as some episodes of Black Mirror, and in fact there’s some great dark humour and wonderful background visual gags. This is easily one of the most enjoyable Black Mirror episodes and at just over 75 minutes (the longest episode in this season), it works well as a short standalone film. Sci-fi fans in particular will dig this sinister space adventure; Black Mirror season four, welcome back! 

The Verdict
★★★★

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