Of course Black Mirror would end up on Netflix, aye. Because who else could come up with anything as high concept as Bandersnatch other than Charlie Booker and the folks from Black Mirror and who the absolute hell else would possibly endorse broadcasting such a thing as Netflix? It’s a match made in some kind of dystopian technological heaven. Probably something along the lines of their San Junipero episode.
The concept is this: a young computer game programmer in the 80s is working on this adaptation of some massive old sci-fi novel called Bandersnatch (which he inherited from his dead mum) and he manages to get this trendy games company on board with it, befriending their top programmer, the kid’s hero, in the process. The twist is this: It’s a choose-your-own-adventure novel and the game is going to be a choose-your-own-adventure game. And, wait for it… the show itself is a choose-your-own-adventure show!
Yeah so Stefan, the main character, goes about his work and as he does that we, as viewers, get to guide him along his path by picking one of two options whenever the lad comes to a particular narrative crossroad. At first it’s little things like picking the music he listens to on the bus, getting us acquainted with the idea. Then later on, being a Black Mirror episode after all, those choices get all sorts of dark. And as we do this Stefan finds his own path to be converging with that of the author who wrote Bandersnatch, a fella whose psychological delusions about his own free will (or lack thereof) led him to decapitate his wife.
Of course, Stefan is right. He is being controlled by afar. We’re controlling him. It’s a very meta allusion which, in a couple of the alternate endings, gets taken to the absolute extreme but I shan’t spoil things here.
I remember reading a few of those Choose Your Own Adventure type things back in the day, and even thinking about them now takes me back to the Papatoetoe Public Library. I don’t remember any of them specifically but I do have a bit of an understanding of how they’re constructed from that. And Bandersnatch stays steady to that structure. It’s a homage more than an evolution of the form as far as the storytelling goes (obviously an interactive film is an evolution from that point of view). By the way, Netflix are actually getting sued by the Choose Your Own Adventure company now, which is weird because I didn’t realise you could own a method of storytelling… but apparently they used that phrase in there or something. Stefan talking to his dad at one point. Silly buggers.
The fun part here is in how they translate the flicking back and forth between pages onto the screen. Every time there’s a decision to make the screen shrinks slightly and a little bar pops up down the bottom with two options. Click on the one you want to take and the story continues along that path (you’ve got 10 secs or it choses at random for you). And make sure your mouse is working if you’re on the HDMI like I was because… damn.
Just like the novels there are all sorts of dead ends and retreads. You find yourself sent back to previous decisions as the show guides you in a different direction so as to keep it all flowing. There are 250 different interweaving clips spanning about 150 minutes (it probably takes about half that time to complete it, by then you’ll have come to about six different endings along the way – there are five credit-inducing endings and a bunch more resets). A lot of variation.
But you also do end up repeating bits over and over. I’m not sure it really has that much rewatchability unless you’re a crazy completist who has to see every bit of footage and explore every possible outcome. But the outcomes are sort of repetitive too, and that’s the main problem with putting something like this on the telly: you’re never going to get anywhere near as in depth as a 500 page book can go. Again, I’m staying clear of spoilers but to be honest I expected more depth to the tale. That’s hardly unique in the Black Mirror repertoire to be fair – quite a few of them start out teasing something incredible but struggle to live up to the initial conceit and settle for good/great instead.
Sidenote… Top Five Black Mirror Episodes Ranked:
Be Right Back
Fifteen Million Merits
Hang The DJ
Bandersnatch still has plenty going for it as a piece of storytelling though. The supporting performances from Will Poulter and Asim Choudhry in particular are great and Fionn Whitehead’s a pretty enthralling lead too (though he has his moments each way). There’s a philosophical aspect to the show which is worth pondering on, particularly with the meta aspect of the story, plus if you end up in the acid trip scene then you get to witness some fascinating visual stuff too. It’s hard to get lost in is all and the tension it builds is as much about your own culpability in what’s going on – it’s Black Mirror so no matter how hard you try to limit the damage, you still end up forced into some very uncomfortable decisions which here you have to own as opposed to sitting back and watching it happen with horror. But at the same time those decisions are based on what the show allows you… so maybe you’re not really in control either. See, this sucker has levels to it, mate.
Plus it’s jam-packed with little details hidden in there for the attentive viewer. Like how other games at Tuckersoft are named after previous Black Mirror episodes (Metal Head, Nosedive). Frankly I’m not sure how well it would hold up as a regular episode… but that’s silly because it’s not a regular episode and the novelty factor of Bandersnatch is absolutely built into both the experience and the narrative. I got the feeling while watching that maybe the smaller choices were the most important. If only I’d picked sugar puffs for breakfast, you know? That’d be a very Black Mirror trick after all. But I think mostly it just takes you where it wants you to go and the interactivity is a bit pointless beyond its own gimmick. Also I’ve gotta admit I hated the Netflix integration (you’ll know it when you see it). A little too clever for its own good there.
Bandersnatch is a sneaky bit of entertainment. Not as good as it could have been but still revolutionary in its scope and typically heavy in its Black Mirror antics. And Netflix, who have experimented with interactive programmes before but mostly just with kids’ stuff, must be lapping it up because they’re the only buggers in the video business who can get away with this kind of thing. Regular telly can’t do this. Game of Thrones ain’t leaving things up for grabs. For Black Mirror and for Netflix this was a perfect marriage of mutual benefit. Bandersnatch itself knows exactly what it is and where it’s at. And so do those flexers at Netflix.
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