Black Mirror has been running since 2011, concurrent with Charlie Brooker’s slow transformation from a pale angry man shouting at his television into practically the platonic ideal of the Guardian reading metropolitan elite. If Brooker has becoming less angry in his public persona, Black Mirror’s consistently bleak [give or take a San Junipero] visions of technological apocalypse indicates that beneath his avuncular, newly bearded exterior, his old misanthropy, whilst dammed in by panel show regular success, still crackles and seethes.
Each Black Mirror episode is practically a stand-alone film in itself, and its length coupled with the relentless pessimism of the show’s quasi-luddite mission statement [that humankind stands on such shaky moral foundations that advancing technology can’t help but plunge us into a hell of our own making] makes it oddly unapproachable in the world of bingeable television. Whilst shows like The Handmaid’s Tale can verge on misery porn, there are at least consistent characters and an evolving narrative to draw it’s traumatised viewer base back in season to season. As every episode of Black Mirror takes place in its own universe, the only thing drawing the viewer is the knowledge that things will be bleak and technology will be involved in some malevolent fashion; it’s not exactly ‘who shot J.R.?’. Resultantly it sometimes feels that Black Mirror is a show referenced [generally clumsily, such as someone referring to a hard-to-use supermarket self-checkout as ‘like something out of Black Mirror’] more than it is loved. As fears about mechanisation and our own uncertain future multiply like viruses, the existence of a show like Black Mirror to reflect such anxieties, feels almost dialectically preordained. Still, historical inevitability isn’t exactly the sexiest mission statement on Netflix and so many people dip in and out, often never bothering to watch every last episode.
Even for Black Mirror agnostics, the newly released Bandersnatch has become something of a talking point, if only for its conceit. Bandersnatch holds the enviable title of the first interactive film aimed at adults on Netflix [it was beaten to the punch by a thematically audacious Puss In Boots movie, recently released on Netflix Kids which, bizarrely, riffs on some of the same themes and anxieties as Bandersnatch] meaning that you, the viewer, dictate the direction the narrative takes in the fashion of a choose your own adventure book. Brooker being Brooker of course, the proceedings are bolted into an iron maiden of post-modern medium awareness. To wit: the main character of the film, the aptly named Stephen Butler, is a twitchy young videogame designer attempting to follow his dreams in the urban hellscape of suburban London circa [a really rather niftily recreated] 1984. Stephen is designing a choose your own adventure game called [wait for it] Bandersnatch based on a choose your own adventure book of the same name written by a fictional author who is most famous for becoming convinced he wasn’t in control of his own actions and cutting off his wife’s head with an axe.
If all of this sounds like it’s getting a bit cute and Meta, then congratulations on basic reading comprehension. The audience control feature is integral to both the motifs of the story and the actual story itself. Whilst a straightforward run through the story will probably average out at around 40 minutes, the game has numerous paths which are designed so that once you finish one you can jump back to your previous choices and make different ones. It’s meant to be thoroughly explored in a single sitting; the film remembers your choices and only repeats the bare minimum of scene setting footage each time you jump back. In addition choices made will unlock new paths for the viewer to explore after a restart, nested within each other like Russian dolls. There are apparently over seven million permutations that the story can take, an absurd number that disguises the fact that the majority of these permutations are functionally identical. You will probably be able to wind up practically all of the endings, give or take a couple in about an hour and half to two hours, far from the punishing 5 hours that some outlets are touting.
Because so much of the story is tied up in the meta-narrative of the unstable Will [Fionn Whitehead who gives good doe-eyed terror, but not much else] feeling like he’s endlessly repeating the same events being controlled by an outside force; the story effectively collapses in the final third, with multiple endings but not a lot of through line to make them feel fully satisfactory as individual stories in their own right. Whilst this issue can make it seem that a perfectly serviceable story has been sacrificed on the altar of gimmick; there are many glittering diamonds in the rough which justify Bandersnatch’s existence as a work of art separate from its headline grabbing format. For one thing David Slade, who directed several of the most artistically impressive episodes of NBC’s deranged Hannibal, tastefully shows off with several stretches of virtuosic filmmaking. Particularly worthy of praise are some plunging shots of Trellick Tower which vertiginously evoke Ballard’s High-Rise and a LSD fuelled bacchanal pulses and shimmers with perfectly pitched auteur flourishes that are just the right side of deliberately showy. In addition Will Poulter’s sardonic game design guru Colin Ritman shamelessly steals the show in every scene he’s in [whilst sporting a nifty pre-Bad Seeds Nick Cave t-shirt of particular interest to this reviewer], most notably in a sequence where he effectively serves as a conspiracy spouting White Rabbit to Butler’s schizoid Alice.
The hundred billion credit question then is whether Bandersnatch marks the birth of a whole new art form for Hollywood to viciously run into the ground; or is it just an interesting artistic cul-de-sac to be saluted for its ambition and quietly never referred to again? I watched it twice, once alone and once with friends and the second time was undoubtedly a better experience, testifying to the formats potential future as a party game if nothing else. Whilst this is a bit of a first for television and film [excluded the aforementioned Puss in Boots, clearly the Velvet Underground to Bandersnatch’s Bowie] videogames such as The Stanley Parable have gone much further with this kind of narrative exploration so it’s not quite the revolutionary prospect it’s being held up by some as. It’s worth noting that Bandersnatch itself seems to have a rather pessimistic take on the viability of this form of storytelling, but considering the author has been dead since 1967 [with apologies to Roland Barthes] that doesn’t really matter. Bandersnatch is an interesting crossroads; a road barely traveled that suddenly has a signpost slyly indicating a way through treacherous ground. You have two choices basically: A] explore Bandersnatch yourself and see if it works for you B] go insane and cut your wife’s head off with an axe. Take as much time as you need.
Director: David Slade
Running Time: N/A
Available on Netflix