This "Black Mirror" spin-off wears its interactivity like a mask, hiding its thrilling story by way of cheap thrills and digital trickery.
There’s a certain level of urgency in Netflix’s new choose-your-own-adventure film, "Bandersnatch." Through its highly complex, multi-threaded narrative, viewers are presented with a concerning yet thought-provoking idea: What if destiny makes all of our decisions for us? The film attempts to satirize this classic philosophical question by blending 21st century media, such as video games and literature, into one giant interactive experience. However, the multi-layered story is tangled and oddly self-indulgent.
The framework of the narrative revolves around a self-starting programmer in 1984. Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), who has been coding a video game based off of a choose-your-own-adventure book named "Bandersnatch," has finally been given his big break at a conglomerate tech company. As he finishes the game, however, his reality starts to distort. It appears as though he isn’t making any of the decisions in his life for himself, someone else is. He is living in his very own creation – a character in a choose-your-own-adventure.
The Orwellian themes can be picked up almost instantaneously. The threat of a higher power, specifically government-issued mind control, is suspenseful and unquestionably captivating. Stefan, who sees a psychologist regularly and takes prescription medication, is a fragile being, easy to manipulate, and as we watch his mind deteriorate, our sympathy for his confusion only grows. This is possible because of Whitehead's frenetic and chilling performance of instability. I believed his fear, and that made me care about which paths I wanted to send him down.
This is where "Bandersnatch" shines brightest, with its characters. Stefan, his father Peter (Craig Parkinson), Colin (Will Poulter) – all of these characters feel like they have a story to tell. The problems show up, however, when the viewer is given control of what Stefan says and does. The form and structure interrupts what would have been an interesting story, ultimately leaving it up to the viewer to complete the narrative with little clues or hunches as to where things could (or should) be going. It becomes a guessing game, which hinders character arcs, plot points, and an overall understanding of what the hell is going on.
The questions viewers are presented with vary from the simple, such as deciding which cereal Stefan should eat for breakfast, to the violent, like deciding whether or not to kill another person. The latter form of question almost always felt random and jarring. I was constantly placed in a scenario where I didn’t want to commit to either one of the choices I was given, and because of that, my sympathy for the characters started to fade. About midway through, I only wanted to see what the director and writers had conjured up. How crazy can I make things? When that mindset sunk in, the story became expendable, and dare I say, unneeded. All I wanted was more action, more creepiness, more insanity. Sorry, Stefan.
On a technical standpoint, "Bandersnatch" is very sophisticated. It creates a new medium, and the smoothness of each overlapping scene and answerable question is highly user-friendly. With that said, it is apparent that the writers have used the convenience of an anti free-will narrative to limit the actual choices viewers can decide upon. While there are thirty-or-so decisions to make, only a handful of them actually lead you to an ending. The rest push you down a rabbit hole of weirdness and failure, and inevitably send you back to a loading screen equivalent of a ‘you lose’ title. This feature plays off the story material, demonstrating that even we, the viewers, don't have a choice over fate. But as an interactive experience, it feels very restricted and somewhat manipulative.
"Bandersnatch" still has a draw, though. It sparks curiosity, not based on its story or characters, but on how we as viewers take in mass media each and every day. The ‘Black Mirror’ franchise is known for its digital age nightmares, and "Bandersnatch" fits into that mold. The experience is uncanny and feels weirdly uncomfortable to be a part of, which is great for a spin-off "Black Mirror" adventure. The curiosity alone is enough of a reason to re-watch the film over and over again, even if a majority of the conclusions feel overly shocking or forced upon the viewer. The interactivity makes the story unremarkable, yes, but the amusement of playing with Stefan's fragile mind will definitely put a sinister smile on your face.
- Final Thoughts -
"Bandersnatch" attempts to innovate how we experience films by combining several forms of modern day media into one interactive experience. The result, while ambitious and often entertaining, hinders its narrative to make room for quick, manipulative thrills. However, if being lead astray is something you find entertaining, "Bandersnatch" will provide you with hours of amusement.
("Bandersnatch" image courtesy of PopSugar UK)