Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
Does choice exist? Are you in control of your decisions? Do you even know?
These are the question that Black Mirror’s new “film” aims to answer. Poorly.
Billed as an interactive experience, Netflix’s “Bandersnatch” should really be titled “Intro to Determinism”. The show attempts to grapple with the concept of choice and free will with the use of interactive technology which allows the user to make decisions that influence the outcome of the story in one way or another. The aim of this gimmick is undoubtedly to pull the viewer in and make them feel like they’re truly a part of the story. The problem with this is that it all gets very tedious, very fast.
The story is set in the 1980s, and is centred on a young game designer named Stefan Butler, who is working on the eponymous “Bandersnatch”, an interactive adventure game where, much like the film, the viewer’s choices affect the course of the story and its ending. He shops the game to a major company named Tuckersoft, and they are delighted with the idea, and extremely eager to work with Stefan. What begins after this point is a series of mind-bending occurrences which start to cause Stefan to unravel and bring his sanity to question. Stefan is played brilliantly by Fionn Whitehead, and the film also has a strong supporting cast of young actors, including Will Poulter as “famed” video game designer Colin Ritman, and Asim Choudry as Moham Thakur, owner of Tuckersoft games. The casting isn’t the problem with the film, as the actors do the best they are capable of with the material they’re given, trying their darnedest to pull you into the story. Unfortunately their effort doesn’t pay off very well.
Look, here’s the issue with Bandersnatch. Yes, the concept is wildly interesting. Interactive “films” have been done before, but were usually seen as a niche interest, and have certainly never been carried out on this scale, giving the special and air of freshness and inventiveness that is immediately alluring. Unfortunately, the zipping backwards and forwards between story beats and choices, and the simple fact that the entire film stops dead every ten minutes or so in order to urge you to make a “choice” (more on that later) robs the special of any real rhythm, and stops the viewer from being able to properly connect with the characters on screen.
The choices themselves begin simply enough, with the first one being a “decision” between breakfast cereals. The first few choices in the game are fairly inconsequential, as Stefan is also asked to choose between what kind of music he would like to listen to on the bus. The film gradually ramps up the intensity of the decisions, until you finally find yourself casually making extremely dramatic choices, which in retrospect, should feel more weighty than they do. And that’s the problem. Due to the focus being placed so heavily on the interactivity of the special, not enough time is given to fleshing out the characters and making us actually care about them, so whenever something big happens to someone in the film, the viewer is likely to be left feeling a bit “…well, okay…” about the whole thing. This has the effect of making the whole thing feel a bit farcical and without real consequence.
To its credit, Black Mirror does have a reputation for good cinematography and interesting imagery, and Bandersnatch doesn’t disappoint in this regard. Bandersnatch is beautifully shot, and some scenes are genuinely fascinating due to their composition or the way they’ve been framed. Unfortunately, Bandersnatch barely lets you take a second to enjoy these moments before pulling you out of the story again to make yet another choice. Honestly, the whole thing would have worked better as a traditional episode or film, as it would actually give the viewer a chance to get invested in the story, without having to worry about paying attention to the screen, or pressing a button when prompted.
All in all, Bandersnatch is a well-intentioned misfire from an otherwise great show. Here’s hoping we get a full, non-interactive season soon. Like, honestly. It’s been a year!
By John Allan.