Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is an entertaining experiment that never quite reaches its potential.
By Jackson Mabe
Bandersnatch, the recent film experiment donning the name of the beloved Netflix technology-based anthology, is an interesting new way to view the parameters of television. By blending the funding and visual prowess of a movie with the branching storylines and intrigue of “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels (whose similarities have prompted a lawsuit against the online streaming behemoth), Bandersnatch delivers a fresh new take on the medium, even though its occasionally arbitrary choices leave the plot feeling a bit unfinished and definitely not on par with the rest of the Black Mirror universe. The best aspect of this film is not its choices, however, but its self-awareness, which weaves a sense of irony into the approximately hour-and-a-half runtime.
Fionn Whitehead portrays Stefan, a young aspiring video game programmer who begins to crack under the pressures of deadlines and resurrected childhood trauma. Based in particular on the binary decisions of the viewer, small choices have tiny impacts on the occurrences of Stefan’s life. For example, the audience’s choice of cereal for Stefan’s breakfast resurfaces later in a small snippet of a commercial; these little hints are interesting, and it makes you feel clever and powerful for having both created and noticed such a small detail. I personally enjoyed spending the first few minutes testing the limits of the show’s capabilities; after all, in a choose-your-own-adventure story, there is never an inherently wrong choice. For the most part, this is true in Bandersnatch as well; poor choices leading to Stefan’s failure in the creation of his beloved video game can lead to a forced rewind and retrial of the past few minutes, but rarely do they play out exactly the same as before; characters will now speak as if they had met before, or their opinions on something slight like the book, which serves as Stefan’s inspiration, will change. This is where the choice-making aspect of Bandersnatch works best: even when you make a bad decision, it feels intentional and doesn’t destroy your entire playthrough while still affecting your own viewing experience.
After reaching a (most likely overwhelmingly bleak) end to one of Stefan’s branching pathways, the viewer is often given the choice to return to the most recent pivotal moment to try for a more positive outcome. This definitely helps buff the runtime, as my first completed storyline took about forty-five minutes; going back to explore as many other endings as possible doubled my time spent immersed in the tale of Stefan, Tuckersoft, and Jerome Davies to an even ninety minutes.
Unfortunately, by the time I was trying for my fifth or sixth time to find the perfect runthrough with a true happy ending (spoiler: doesn’t really exist), the initial surprise and delight I felt at choosing Stefan’s actions had wore off; the gimmick couldn’t permanently stave off the story’s status as a bit stale for the creative Black Mirror anthology. Many endings are very similar, with Stefan either going insane and going to jail or releasing a disappointing adaptation of the Bandersnatch novel which the story is based around; after a few attempts, slight details like the exact way he ends up in jail or why he doesn’t complete the game to his satisfaction, seem immaterial.
Without a doubt, however, the greatest aspect of Bandersnatch is how conscious it is of its own existence. The topic of free will and influence has been explored before by Black Mirror, but here it is taken to an extreme and serves as the focal theme of the entire story. Depending on the user’s remote-based interactions with Stefan, the paranoid British programmer can be controlled or nudged down the path to insanity; the thing is, his lack of control over his own actions is what ultimately pulls him into the pit of madness. As he slowly starts to resemble the author-turned-murderer Jerome Davies in his obsession over choices with two outcomes, the audience is hinted that their own identical predicament is the source of their protagonist’s problems. It’s amusing to see your own preferences affect the character in a story so directly, but also disturbing to witness said preferences play out in gruesome and ill-fated ways. At the same time, the illusion of choice is hinted in Stefan’s game, in his life, and in the audience’s puppet-master decisions: even when you feel like you’re in complete control, the predetermined paths in front of you offer a limited set of options and will only lead to a very certain number of outcomes. It’s difficult to explain, really; in order to truly feel like a part of Stefan, as either a dark whisper in his ear or a cruel god commanding his every move, Bandersnatch should be experienced individually, as is the point of the entire project.
Despite a basic plot that would feel mediocre in the normal Black Mirror episodic format, the diverging plotlines of Bandersnatch provides for an entertaining experience the first few times through. While the illusions of choice and theory of free will (or lack thereof) are explored in the relatively brief story, very few of the endings will give a true feeling of satisfaction. Ultimately, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is an intriguing concept that offers potential for the future of choice-driven television and should definitely be experienced, if only for the novelty. This film is far from perfect, but still offers a viewing experience unlike anything I’ve seen before.