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Black Mirror: Bandersnatch review – The choice is a lie

[The following contains SPOILERS for Black Mirror: Bandersnatch]

About two decades ago, a much younger version of me saw an ad in the newspaper for a movie called Mr. Payback. The ad bragged that it was the first interactive movie ever devised. I asked my older cousin to take me to see it and shortly thereafter, we went to a Showcase Cinemas to check it out.

The plot of Mr. Payback (such as it was) centered around a cyborg named Mr. Payback who would use his special powers to get back at people for their sins. Every seat in the theater was outfitted with a controller and at key moments in the film, a set of three choices was presented to viewers. Whichever choice received more votes would be the one that the character on screen made, so button mashing was a must in order to get the outcome you were interested in.

At the time, I was dazzled by the technology, even though each “playthrough” of the film only lasted 20 minutes (and for a full price ticket, no less). I didn’t necessarily think that this would be the future of cinema (I wasn’t thinking in those terms back then), but I really appreciated the novelty of seeing movies and videogames collide in a big way.

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that Mr. Payback was a terrible film with awful characters. The acting and writing were subpar and meanspirited (despite Back to the Future screenwriter Bob Gale being involved in the film’s creation). Its method of storytelling never caught on for a variety of reasons, but one truth remained clear: It’s hard enough to do a good job of telling a single narrative with only one ending.

In the intervening years, interactive storytelling has thrived, but mostly not in movie theaters. PC games with FMV (full-motion video) on CD Rom and the Sega CD gave way to incredibly ambitious stories like Red Dead Redemption 2, Mass Effect, and the games of David Cage. The most successful of these limited the total number of potential outcomes. Sure, there might be minor differences in dialogue, or in which characters survived, but most great games stuck with only a few endings (As a recent example, see the hugely successful Red Dead Redemption 2, where your “honor” level dictates how some of the later sequences play out, but limits the outcome to 3-4 distinct endings with minor variations).

There’s a limit to how satisfying an ending can be if you can get to it by dumb luck. The laws of physics (and production schedules) dictate that the more endings there are, the less time and energy can be invested in each one.

Which brings us to this week. Netflix released the latest entry in the Black Mirror franchise, an interactive film called Bandersnatch. The story is about a game developer played by Fionn Whitehead who desperately struggles to ship a game he’s working on, Bandersnatch, before a holiday deadline. Admittedly, the tech behind how Netflix made and executed this is impressive (although bafflingly, newer devices like Apple TV and Chromecast are unable to “play” Bandersnatch). But is the story any good?

Mirroring its branching structure, Bandersnatch is hugely ambitious, with threads splintering off the main storyline and increasingly widening its scope. Depending on which choices you make, there are philosophical ruminations about the nature of choice and free will, a stark depiction of burnout in the video game production process, a direct connection drawn between mental illness and creativity, and a protagonist who struggles with daddy issues and (dead) mommy issues. It’s all very Black Mirror-esque, but without any of the focus that make the commentary and satire land effectively in a regular episode of the show.

I found the experience of watching/playing Bandersnatch to be enormously frustrating. The film frequently presents you with two options without any sense of what outcome you’re even supposed to be interested in and which choice might lead you there. Am I supposed to want to drive the protagonist to the point of insanity, or am I supposed to want him to take a more healthy path? Should I nurture his relationship with his father or should I stoke the flames of familial discontent?

All of this would be fine if the endings were comparably interesting. However, not only do some choices lead to the film abruptly ending in an unsatisfying fashion, but Bandersnatch’s creators have already stated that there are certain endings that are “definitive,” with conventional credits to accompany them. By implication, many decisions lead you to “dead ends.” One of the endings even comments on how unsatisfying the outcome is (Note to filmmakers: Commenting on how bad an ending/joke/line of dialogue is doesn’t make it better). Thus, watching Bandersnatch is equivalent to being placed in a maze without an inkling of where the exit is, or if the exit is even a desirable destination.

I can already hear some readers responding, saying, “Why are you complaining? That’s the whole point!” Indeed, one of the main themes of Bandersnatch is the idea of free will. We believe we are driving the decisions of the protagonist but, in fact, it’s the filmmaker that dictates the outcome. We can decline to get high, but our drink will be drugged. We can try to avoid talking about the memories of our mother, only to be forced into it later. The filmmakers want us to consider the possibility that free will is an illusion, and that the forces driving us may not be ones that we know, understand, or can control.

If indeed this is one of the purposes of Bandersnatch, then I can say that it makes its point, but not in a way that I found to be particularly entertaining or enjoyable. “I’m going to make this decisionmaking process enormously frustrating and constraining for you, so that you may understand the pointlessness of all your actual real-life decisions!” is not a pitch that excites me for something to consume. In fact, it’s actively off-putting (Side bar: For an example of this type of commentary done well, see The Stanley Parable).

That said, Bandersnatch is not without merit. Previous Black Mirror director David Slade does a great job nailing the period look and surreal feel of the story, and Whitehead’s performance is a chilling depiction of a descent into madness. Bandersnatch also wants the viewer to consider the concept of technological enslavement. If there’s one theme to take away from the previous season of Black Mirror, it’s that we should consider if/when the technology we use might ever “suffer” in a way that we might understand that term.

In one of the more effective and mind-bending storylines, the viewer is able to inform the protagonist that they are controlling him via Netflix, and attempt to explain what all that means to a character who only has knowledge of 1980s technology. It’s a great meta moment that makes you as the viewer reconsider your relationship to the entertainment you consume. After all, everything you watch is ostensibly there to serve your viewing needs.

My first playthrough of Bandersnatch was only 30-40 minutes long, as I quickly made a choice that led to the Bandersnatch game being released in a poor state. Conveniently, the game allows you to rewind to previous decisions and, in an interesting twist, previous playthroughs can often impact the outcome and nature of future ones. I ended up spending around 1.5-2 hours with Bandersnatch before I realized that I had seen most of what it had to offer, and exploring further would necessitate wasting time re-watching a lot of content I’d already seen. The stories and their outcomes just weren’t interesting enough for me to further engage.

Bandersnatch is a mile wide and an inch deep. How you choose to get to the bottom of it is pretty much immaterial.

Disclosure: I currently work for Amazon Prime Video. The opinions expressed here are solely mine and do not represent those of my organization or company.