We groan so often while watching television. If only they let me write the damned thing, we think, burned by terrible plot twists, nonsensical diversions, and characters behaving in ways they never would.
A cinematic take on the Choose Your Adventure books popular with kids, Bandersnatch puts Black Mirror’s twisted, meta spin on the format’s tendrils of storytelling, placing the viewer in control of how disturbing, dark, or, in some cases, just plain silly to make the movie they’re watching.
The “that thing you liked as a kid, but for adults” genre of entertainment tends to fall victim to its own gimmick, and that’s certainly the case here, too.
Bandersnatch, written by Black Mirror evil genius Charlie Booker and directed by David Slade, is a masterful feat of storytelling—or, in this case, story-mapping—and a major achievement in programming as well. The interactive aspect of the viewing experience is seamless, and each adventure manages to be tonally unique and narratively distinct. But it turns out that when television starts to become a video game, the integrity of the story is muddied by the thrill of choice and control.
The provocative beauty of past Black Mirror entries lay in the ways in which the stories burrowed into your consciousness, causing you to not only obsess about what happens to the characters long past when the credits roll, but to rethink your own life and how you live it. In Bandersnatch, having control over the story somehow also removes you from it entirely. In an odd way, the God complex diminishes your actual investment in the characters, the narrative, and its significance and morality.
Bandersnatch is a fun experience and a major achievement, but it may be the least engrossing and involving of any of Black Mirror’s stories.
Set in 1984, the movie follows a nerdy, quiet young man named Stefan (Dunkirk’s Fionn Whitehead), who is given the opportunity by a major video game developer to adapt his favorite Choose Your Own Adventure book into a video game. (This is but one of the many, increasingly obvious and annoying winks to the actual Netflix movie experience.)
The book is called Bandersnatch, and we’re told early and reminded often that its author was driven mad by the process of crafting its complicated web of narratives and mythologies, to the point that he eventually killed his own wife. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that Stefan starts to go a little crazy himself while completing the video game adaptation alone in the house he shares with his father.
As he sets about the task, we’re asked to make decisions for him. Some are as benign as whether to eat Sugar Puffs or Frosties cereal for breakfast, while others as monumental as whether or not to have someone killed. This is Black Mirror, and even the format of a Choose Your Own Adventure interactive carries a lesson. Here, the fairly obvious one is that all of a person’s choices, big or small, impact the rest of their life.
That’s the issue here for Stefan. As we begin dictating more and more of his actions, he is starting to become aware of the fact that he is not controlling his own behavior. He doesn’t know where the urge to do or say things is coming from. It’s disturbing him, and it’s a little too on-the-nose.
This is where the meta references to the actual movie we’re helping write start to escalate, eventually moving past thoughtfulness to the point of parody, as the taste level becomes more sophomoric. At one point you’re offered the opportunity to flat-out tell him it’s Netflix that’s controlling him, setting up the grand comedy moment of a TV character screaming in angst, “What the fuck is Netflix?” and the ensuing challenge of explaining the concept of the online streaming service to a person in the ’80s.
There is something ostensibly deeper here that Bandersnatch is getting at. It prods at the unshakable feeling that we are not in control of our own lives anymore, whether that’s an allusion to various puppet strings we’ve willingly tied ourselves to in giving up privacy and security to technology and government, or merely the idea that the world’s chaos around us has seized even our own autonomy.
The interactive nature of it is also a clever evolution in Black Mirror’s menacing cautionary tale. In this case, society and our collective choices aren’t just metaphorically responsible for what befalls the characters, but you yourself are implicated directly with each decision you make in the Choose Your Own Adventure. The question is whether making things that literal is effective. To that end, Bandersnatch offers diminishing returns.
There are apparently five different absolute endings. The quickest way through could have the viewer wrapping up their adventure in just 40 minutes, while the estimated average viewing time is 90 minutes. That tracked with our initial experience, which clocked in at around 85 minutes and included looping back several times to pivotal decision-making points and choosing different paths, and then further forks down the road.
As with an old fashioned Choose Your Own Adventure book, it is epically frustrating when a choice ends the entire narrative abruptly and you have to go back. (Don’t tell Stefan to spill his tea on his computer!) But as the narrative backtracks when you reach dead ends, you start to lose track yourself of the rules of that particular journey: which decisions you made, and therefore why characters are acting a certain way in that timeline and even which characters are alive or dead.
We eventually reached what we think are all five endings. Admirably, they’re all unique in tone, theme, lesson, and even genre. They’re all also entirely unsatisfying.
This is a movie about how crafting a Choose Your Own Adventure narrative drives a person mad. By the time we’re through with Bandersnatch, we totally get that.
Gimmicks have a very short shelf life. Based on Bandersnatch, we’d say that shelf life amounts to about one Black Mirror interactive movie.
At one point, the film seems to admit just that, breaking the fourth wall to have a character tell Stefan, when he suggests that his actions are being manipulated for someone else’s entertainment, “If this was entertainment, surely you could make it more entertaining.”
This a bold storytelling experiment, carrying both the thrill of novelty and newness, but also the messiness in its lack of refinement and basic superficiality. When you reach the end of the Bandersnatch path you’ve dictated, you’re certain of the adventure you’d choose next: a regular episode of Black Mirror.