tv review

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch: A Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Review

Photo: Netflix

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, the choose-your-own-adventure Black Mirror “event” that dropped on Netflix in the wee hours of Friday morning, is many things.

It’s another installment of Black Mirror that raises questions about technology, free will, and the impact of innovation on mental health. It’s also an installment of Black Mirror unlike anything else in the series, or on most of Netflix, for that matter, because it’s interactive and allows viewers to select narrative options that guide the story along numerous paths.

You could say it’s one more TV dip in the ‘80s nostalgia pool, complete with references to Pac-Man and The Young Ones.  But you also could say say, yeah, sure, it’s one more TV dip in the ‘80s nostalgia pool, but it’s one that lets you choose whether you’d like to hear the Thompson Twins or the Eurythmics, and surely that counts for something.

It’s a television special/movie that sounds like it should center around a character played by Benedict Cumberbatch. (Benedict Cumberbatch stars in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, Cumberbitches!) But actually, it’s a television special/movie that centers around a potentially mentally-ill protagonist played by Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk), whose physical appearance will remind you of a young Wes Bentley for the five hours it may take you to consume every version of Bandersnatch.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is a gargantuan, extremely meta commentary on Netflix and the way we watch television in 2018. Or: It’s the most ingenious attempt to troll TV critics ever executed. (Oh, do you TV-reviewing types have a problem with Netflix episodes that are too long? Well wait ‘til you get a load of this one.)

With its many facets, endings, story arcs, and extensive hype about its game-changer status, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is, in summary, a lot. How does one even begin to review a TV show whose beginning, middle, and end changes depending on the way viewers press their remotes, click their trackpads, or press their digital screens? I guess it has to be done like this.

Option #1: Read the Requisite Plot Summary

Option #2: Find Out Whether It’s Any Good

You chose: “Read the Requisite Plot Summary”

If for some reason you had no access to the Internet during the past 48 hours or so, here are the basics on this Black Mirror installment: Set in 1984, it follows a video game programmer named Stefan (Whitehead) as he pitches a choose-your-own-adventure computer game called Bandersnatch, based on a fictional novel, to a start-up company where revered gaming developer Colin Ritman (Will Poulter) is among the staff. Depending on how you navigate the experience, different events will occur, but in nearly every iteration, Stefan runs into obstacles as he tries to bring the game to life on a tight deadline while confronting long-fermenting issues regarding his mother’s death, his father, the creative process, and the precarious nature of his own mental health. As Stefan reaches decision points both major — should he jump off the balcony of a high rise, or tell Colin to leap instead? — and minor — eat Sugar Puffs for breakfast or Kellogg’s Frosties? — the Netflix interface allows users to click on one option or another, then seamlessly continues the film based on what they’ve selected.

You chose: “Find Out Whether It’s Any Good”

With its self-referential approach to unspooling a narrative about a choose-your-own-adventure video game, Bandersnatch, written by Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker and directed by David Slade (who also directed the Black Mirror episode “Metalhead”) is compelling and clever, especially if you wind up going down the paths that convince Stefan he is — spoiler, I guess? How do spoilers even work when there is no single ending? — being controlled by a future “streaming entertainment platform” known as Netflix. Unfortunately, just about every conclusion leaves Stefan in a bleak, dark situation, sometimes after committing exceptionally violent acts. That’s not surprising. This is Black Mirror, after all. But considering how innovative Bandersnatch’s approach to storytelling is, it’s a shame that it doesn’t land in some more unexpected places.

Option #1: Get Context About Bandersnatch’s Approach

Option #2: Find Out Why This Show Might Kill Jen Chaney

You chose: “Get Context About Bandersnatch’s Approach”

It’s also worth noting that this sort of interactive approach is not fundamentally new. Even before the Choose Your Own Adventure books published in the late 1970s and ‘80s and the advent of the computer games that Bandersnatch riffs on, there was Julio Cortázar’s 1960s book Hopscotch, which offered readers the opportunity to jump from chapter to chapter in more than one order. It’s not even the first time that a contemporary TV show has applied this technique: Netflix has taken a similar approach with several of its children’s programs, while earlier this year, HBO aired Steven Soderbergh’s Mosaic, which also came with an app that enabled the events surrounding its central murder mystery to be viewed from different characters’ perspectives.

You chose: “Find Out Why This Show Might Kill Jen Chaney”

But unlike Mosaic or those previous Netflix efforts, Bandersnatch enables viewers of a mature sci-fi thriller to change the plot in the moment. (I tried watching it on both a laptop and a smart TV, and both provided a seamless experience, though it isn’t compatible with Apple TV or Chromecast.) Not only can you decide what happens next, you can even determine the movie’s run time. In theory, you can watch it in 90 minutes. But if you opt to go back and make different choices, you could easily watch Bandersnatch for hours. This prospect is both exhilarating and, for a TV critic like me, petrifying. Maybe this falls under the heading of TV Critic Problems, but when there’s already too much TV and many traditional, scripted series (especially on Netflix) drag on for longer than they should, the last thing I want to be told is, “Oh, from now on, every episode you watch can go on forever.” If more and more TV starts to adopt this model — Netflix has already indicated it plans to put its Bandersnatch technology to further use — I may opt to eat one last bowl of Sugar Puffs, pop a Thompson Twins cassette into my Walkman, and jump off the balcony of a high rise myself.

Option #1: “Read About the Smart Filmmaking

Option #2: “Just Gimme the Easter Eggs

You chose: “Read About the Smart Filmmaking”

That being said, there is a lot to appreciate within the many iterations of Bandersnatch, which is not just a mystery box show, but a mystery box show about mystery box shows that’s trying to play three-dimensional chess with its audience. As cannily directed by Slade, the details in just about every frame underscore the illusory notion that humans have complete control over their fates. When Stefan drops an acid tab given to him by Colin, he falls into a happy, drug-induced haze during which he discovers that he can place his fingers on a painting and manipulate its swirls and colors. This serves as both a trippy bit of imagery and a sly commentary on the swiping and tapping everyone watching Bandersnatch does within their own digital frames. A flashback to a pivotal moment in Stefan’s childhood also pointedly provides only one option for viewers to select, the implication being that certain elements of one’s past can’t be rewritten. Throughout every turn in this maze of a Netflix movie, Whitehead convincingly plays Stefan as stressed, desperate, or downright homicidal, depending on what your selection call for; those emotional transitions never feel forced, even though, technically, they are since the viewer is essentially demanding them.

You chose: “Just Gimme the Easter Eggs”

The number of Easter eggs and pop culture references embedded in Bandersnatch has already fired up the Reddit analysts and should keep them busily dissecting for at least the next week or two. Sly nods to other Black Mirror episodes are nestled into certain scenes, and so are callbacks both obvious and semi-obscure to the 1980s. The idea that Stefan is hired in July to finish creating Bandersnatch by September so that it can be released in time for Christmas, for example, is reminiscent of the backstory behind E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the spin-off video game widely considered the worst ever made. The big problem with E.T.: It was impossible to figure out how to get to the end and win. (Sound familiar?) Memories of other films — Donnie Darko and The Matrix, among others — also bubble up while watching Bandersnatch, too. Whether those moments qualify as derivative or homage is, like so much of Bandersnatch, up to you to decide.

Option #1: Read the End of This Review. This Is Your Only Option.

You chose: “Read the End of This Review”

Ultimately, what may make this Black Mirror event a true watershed moment is what it foreshadows about the platform that streams it. In the context of a narrative work of television, all those clicked-upon choices you make for Stefan don’t seem particularly significant in a wider sense. But it seems naïve to think that Netflix, a company that sees its competition not as other television networks or streaming platforms, but actual sleep, might not utilize that type of engaging interactivity to collect even more data about its subscribers. “I am watching you on Netflix,” Stefan’s computer tells him in one version of the Bandersnatch story. “I make decisions for you.” When you watch Bandersnatch, you’re watching a cautionary tale. You also may be living one at the same time. And that might be the most Black Mirror thing I’ve ever heard.

Bandersnatch: A Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Review