Film Review – Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018)
Netflix’s Black Mirror is back with Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, but this time, it’s not a six episode season, it’s a movie. Even weirder, it’s an interactive movie, where the viewer can choose the actions of the protagonist. This neat concept has a lot of promise but it all hinges on the execution.
Will this be nothing more than a fun gimmick or will the film use this narrative format to change storytelling moving forward for Netflix?
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: David Slade
Written By: Charlie Brooker
It’s 1984. The gaming industry has yet to become the massive commercial enterprise it would eventually become. Even so, many up-and coming programmers see promise in the format and begin to design creative 8-bit console games. One such programmer is the socially awkward teenager Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead) who’s designing a game based on his favorite fantasy epic ‘Bandersnatch’. The game would follow the same ‘choose-your-adventure’ format as the novel.
Similar to the novel, the game would let the player make decisions along the way, as long as the player avoids the demon called Pax (Jon-Jo Inkpen), who is known as ‘The Thief of Destiny’. The philosophical ideas that sparked the novel’s inception had plummeted the author, Jerome F. Davies (Jeff Minter) into an existential crisis. This existential crisis led to schizophrenic insanity as Davies brutally murdered his wife and painted the symbol of Pax on the walls with her blood.
Irregardless of the gory history that accompanies it, the prototype of the Bandersnatch game grabs the attention of Mohan Thakur (Asim Chaudhry), the head of a gaming industry called Tuckersoft. One of Butler’s idols, Colin Ritman (Will Poulter), also works at Tuckersoft. He’s an eccentric video game designer with quite a unique perspective on fate, destiny, and free will.
But the awesome amount of paths in the game narrative, as well in life, begins to take a toll on Butler’s mental state. But where that leads, is entirely dependent on YOU, the reader…
Or is it?
It’s remarkable that a show like the British Black Mirror, an unrelentingly bleak anthology show depicting the often frightening consequences of (futuristic) technology on our humanity, has found mainstream popularity. The first two seasons (and probably the darkest Christmas special you will ever likely see) originally aired on Channel 4 but it wasn’t until season 3, when the show was co-produced with Netflix, that Black Mirror received the critical and commercial attention it deserved.
But what makes the show great is that you never really know what to expect. Episodes can venture into a surprisingly different genres: The Waldo Moment is a satirical look at how the general populace is willing to elect a loudmouth imbecile (thank god this has never happened); Nosedive is a character study of one woman’s desperate need for digital acceptance; the infamous San Junipero episode is a relationship drama about how the possibility of everlasting (digital) life could both impede or enhance romantic companionship while Playtest portrays the psychological and visceral horrors of virtual gaming.
Black Mirror isn’t compelled to follow a standard formula. It’s known for its often depressing and disturbing content but it can also warm our hearts. It’s a show that has shown us both heaven and hell. And it continues to surprise us, as evident in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. Instead of another batch of episodes, we are treated to an interactive movie, where we, the viewer, can make decisions for the protagonist which will lead to a different ending.
Apparently there are five different endings — though there are rumors of secret endings which you can unlock — and if you watch all of them, you get up to a runtime of about 5 hours and twenty minutes. While the concept seems intriguing, it could easily be nothing more than a cheap gimmick.
But since this article was penned by original show creator Charlie Brooker (who is also surprisingly funny if you watch his sadly cancelled Newswipe), I should have known that there was nothing to be worried about.
Besides the interactive narrative, fans of the show will notice that this particular Black Mirror takes place in the past. While the show has played around with time periods before, this is the first story that takes place in the past, specifically 1984.
Now you don’t have to be a literary professor to notice the Orwellian significance of that date. Just like in 1984, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch muses about an all-seeing force surveying our every move. In 1984 it’s the oppressive regime of Big Brother while in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch it can take the forms of various figures, depending on which ending you get.
But the date is also significant for the gaming industry, since it takes place a year after the video-game crash of 1983, which tore down many gaming industry conglomerates and made many people question the commercial value of these console games. Now video games have become an indispensable part of pop culture.
The historical significance can also not be ignored. The eighties were the beginning of neo-conservatism of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. (Not to mention that a certain “loudmouth” businessman found some success during this decade of massive deregulation.) It was a time when wealth and excess was encouraged, when Wall Street finally began to rule government.
Thankfully, the western world would never succumb to the totalitarian whims of George Orwell’s classic novel. But if we aren’t careful, we might be heading there, as Black Mirror is warning us, to a different sort of dystopia…
How Does Your Version End?
As mentioned, the ending of the film can differ heavily on the choices you make for the protagonist. These choices also lead to a different sort of film. Choices can lead to a psychological thriller, in which you watched a film about the decline of one young man’s mental state. Different choices can lead to you a paranoia-fueled, 70’s-esque thriller. While one particular choice can lead you down into a hilarious bout of meta-insanity — this version has to be seen to be believed. Whichever ending you get, all of them tweak the story in a unique way.
If you are willing, you can watch all these endings or you receive the option to move to the credits. There’s no definitive ending. It all depends on you. (Or does it?)
Every episode of Black Mirror is an intimate character study and Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is no different. We are given an intimate glimpse of one person’s internal struggle and — in most cases, I’m afraid — mental deterioration. To make this work you need a solid lead performer.
Fortunately, Fionn Whitehead does an excellent job as the socially isolated and obsessive programmer Stefan Butler. From the moment we meet him, we can see he’s on edge, that he’s haunted by this need to prove himself. He’s based his entire identity on the creation of this game. When he’s faced with the many obstacles on the way — some depending on the choices you make for him — the pressure begins to build and his grip on reality starts to weaken. How this all culminates depends on the choices you make for him, but no matter what happens (or what Butler does) you continue to sympathize with him.
No matter the great writing by Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker or the sleek directing by David Slade, it all would have fallen apart without solid lead performer helping you to navigate through this ever-changing story.
I wouldn’t be surprised if many other movies, particularly in the streaming business, will use the interactive gimmick in many of their products. It can certainly be a lot of fun sitting next to your friends or significant others and choosing the actions of the person on screen.
But those movies will make the interactive part nothing more than a fun gimmick. The interactive format in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is much more than just a gimmick. Writer Charlie Brooker uses the interactive format to further the many philosophical themes of the show, as well as exploring the age-old question of free will.
Before Bandersnatch, the viewer could watch horrific things happen to their protagonist in every Black Mirror episode and now we can actively partake in them. The film even pokes fun at this in one particular scene, as we are given two very morbid options, and one of them will have the main character sigh and exclaim, “really?”
In Bandersnatch we are told about Pax, a demon known as “The Thief of Destiny”. As his surname suggests, his arch-typical villainy centers around the theft of one’s destiny. This seemingly unstoppable foe robs of our free will and this has caused novelist Jerome F. Davies to lose his mind. Because if we are not in control of our actions, then how can we be held accountable for them?
Personally I don’t believe that not having free will negates the need for morality in any way, but it’s an interesting point and wonderfully explored in Bandersnatch. Even though the interactive format seems to grant us free will, the film seems to slyly hint at us that this might be an illusion as well.
Whether we do or don’t have free will, it doesn’t negate the fun we are having robbing Stefan Butler of his destiny.
Black Mirror returns to Netflix with another dark and challenging story, filled with even more surprises than before. This is not just one of the best Black Mirror stories, it’s one of the best films Netflix has ever released — though we still haven’t seen their upcoming Martin Scorsese film yet.
The film’s critical and commercial success might spark a host of interactive films in the future. Whether or not this will be a good thing is not yet known. But I can’t imagine anyone transcending the interactive gimmick in such an intellectually fulfilling way than Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on Black Mirror: Bandersnatch? Comment down below!
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