Part movie, part game, mostly a gimmick, Netflix hopes that its new Black Mirror one-off special, the weirdly-titled Bandersnatch, will be the start a new wave of interactive streaming entertainment. True to the show’s themes, the actual program functions as a warning against just that sort of thing.
Written by series mastermind Charlie Brooker and directed by David Slade (30 Days of Night), Bandersnatch is set in 1984, shortly after the dawn of the home videogaming era. Young programming prodigy Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead from Dunkirk) pitches a project he’s been working on to the head of Tuckersoft, the hottest gaming software company in England. His game is a 3D maze quest based on a mammoth-sized Choose Your Own Adventure novel written by a brilliant but quite mad sci-fi author who was later arrested for beheading his wife. The company’s founder, who’s more salesman than programmer, loves the idea and wants to rush out a release in time for the Christmas shopping season.
The intense pressure of finishing the code by deadline triggers some latent mental health issues in Stefan. The more his concerned father (Craig Parkinson) and therapist (Alice Lowe) try to help him, the more he doubts their intentions. After a spacy fellow programmer (Will Poulter) offers him a tab of acid to expand his mind, Stefan loses his grip on reality and believes that he has no free will, that all of his actions are being controlled by an outside force he can’t comprehend. Will he follow the original Bandersnatch author into madness, or will he pull himself out of it? That’s for you to decide!
Or is it only an illusion of control? Hmm…
Thanks to some interactive pop-up menus and (mostly) seamless branching, the Bandersnatch movie is designed as its own Choose Your Own Adventure tale. At various points, text will appear at the bottom of the screen, prompting you to make a decision between two options using your remote. Some of the choices are mundane, such as which breakfast cereal Stefan should eat or what music he should listen to. Others have more significant ramifications. All other user controls, such as pausing or rewinding, are disabled, and if you don’t choose an option before the timer runs out, a default decision will be made for you. The paths you follow will affect the overall length of the program. Netflix claims that the average viewing session could last from 40 to 90 minutes (mine was closer to the latter), with several possible endings.
If you’re into it, this could prompt multiple viewings to explore all the options. If you’re not, you may try to pick the choices that lead to the quickest exit.
In the most fun detour I encountered, you have the option of communicating with Stefan and telling him that a viewer from the future is watching him on Netflix and controlling his decisions. This of course leads to a conversation about what Netflix is.
True to the Choose Your Own Adventure format, you may find yourself walking into numerous dead-ends that cause you to loop back around and try again. What I found is that the story forces you in certain directions with negative consequences for decisions that lead away from the intended path. Stray too far and you’ll inevitably have to repeat something you already watched. To ease some of the frustration with this, themes of repetition, second chances, and fate vs. free will are baked into the narrative.
Bandersnatch is far from the first attempt to combine movie entertainment with a user-controlled gaming element, but the way Charlie Brooker weaves that gimmick into a story that is itself about branching narratives and alternate realities is rather ingenious. I doubt that any of Netflix’s plans for future CYOA programs will have such meta resonance.
That said, a gimmick is still a gimmick, and the entire Bandersnatch experience amounts to little more than an elaborate justification for its own format. Aside from the structure, I’m not sure that the story adds up to anything terribly original. You can see where it’s inevitably headed no matter which paths you take to get there. In typical Black Mirror fashion, the message of the piece is deeply cynical, seemingly just for the sake of being so.
I was interested enough in Bandersnatch to explore it for a while, but truth be told my patience wore thin before I finally found an exit. Personally, I don’t feel a need to dive any more deeply into this with repeated viewings.