How Black Mirror Uses Color to Set Two Very Different Tones


An episode from the most recent season of Black Mirror makes excellent use of color and light to signify tone – all while making viewers feel wildly unsettled. If you haven’t seen “U.S.S. Callister,” the first episode of Black Mirror’s fourth season, go watch it and come right back. It’s impossible to talk about without spoilers.

“U.S.S. Callister” has been written about a lot since it came out last month. It’s a prescient take on geek culture, gaming, and how women in tech are treated. But the episode also does a great job establishing two very different settings, thanks to its color choices and use of lighting.

This is necessary because it takes place in two very different worlds: The first is reality, where Nanette (Cristin Milioti) works for her boss Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons) at Callister Inc. (the company behind a popular immersive game called Infinity); and the second is U.S.S. Callister, a gamified version of reality in which digital clones of Nanette and her coworkers exist at the mercy of Daly, their very-real captor.

Reality manages to look more grim than virtual reality, even though that’s where the truly terrible things are happening; In the real world, Daly’s apartment is almost dark, save the glow of some lamps and several giant monitor screens. The offices of Callister, Inc. are dimly lit and gray, while the bridge of the digital U.S.S. Callister is bright orange and purple. Lights on the ship come up even brighter upon the entrance of the hostage crew’s puppet master, Daly.

To see only Netflix’s brief trailer for the episode is to think that Black Mirror is going a strange route with a fun Star Trek spoof: It’s got the 60s-style colorful costumes, hair, and makeup; It has a fearless captain and devoted crew; and it looks like the kind of place where space problems are solved in 60 minutes or less, albeit with a much higher budget than the show it’s paying homage to. But in reality, there’s nothing fun about it. Plemons is no William Shatner here, and nobody’s happy to be on this spaceship.

Daly’s abuse of power speaks volumes in today’s post-Weinstein culture, and it’s especially heartening to realize about a quarter of the way into the episode that Nanette is the main character – not Daly.

Stream “U.S.S. Callister” on Netflix now (and then skip over to watching season four’s “Hang the D.J.” episode next).

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