“This is an interactive film where you make choices to alter the story. Throughout your viewing, there will be moments when choices are presented at the bottom of the screen. To select one, just click, using your mouse or track pad. Do you understand?”
The murmurs are true, though in a deeper and more philosophical sense, they aren’t. The opening narration above would seem to confirm the rumors of a “choose your own adventure”–style episode of Black Mirror, in which technological breakthroughs enable we the people to dictate the course of events in an episode. After the polite robot voice asks us if we understand, we may select either Yes or No to begin the episode. But the episode does have to begin. If you click Yes, all well and good, we’re off to the races. If you instead go with No, the robot woman will go through her spiel once more and ask if you understand. If you feel like being a real smart-ass and insist that you still do not understand, tough cookies, because we’re starting anyway.
Though the episode/movie/concept-game/streaming entertainment object titled “Bandersnatch” constantly demands that its viewer play the role of the decider — this cereal or that, stay calm or freak out, him or me — we may only minimally deviate from a preordained path. Series creator and episode writer Charlie Brooker recognizes the limits of the narrative agency ostensibly afforded by this unusual format, and in typical Black Mirror fashion, he’s organized his conceit around what would otherwise be a bug in the code. Through no small measure of effort (a head-spinning 312-minute run-time was teased in advance of the episode’s debut, though in practice that turns out to be more theoretical than literal), he’s made a faulty simulation of free will about a man driven mad by a faulty simulation of free will, which then makes the beard-stroking suggestion, Is not all of life a faulty simulation of free will? At times, you can all but hear the bubbling of bong-water.
Brooker’s grand experiment succeeds best as meta-commentary, second-best as metaphor, and then least so in the most immediate terms of what it is. Which is my convoluted way of saying that “Bandersnatch” is much more interesting to think about than it is to watch, a collection of notions and inquiries that often glitches as a work of drama. Maybe the fault lies with Brooker for mapping yet another Black Mirror story along the familiar route of machine-obsession insanity, a bit that’s played-out five years in. Or maybe he’s only to blame for investing in the gambit of narrative choices, which have a way of sticking propulsion-shattering ten-second pauses in otherwise charged scenes. Either way, once the final-final credits start to roll, the urge to get online and start feverishly posting about “Bandersnatch” far outmatches the will to ever sit through it again.
While I’m a pretty indecisive person in general — I have gone on record as fantasizing about a restaurant where I can simply place an order for “food” — I found myself faltering when shaping the fate of unstable programmer Stefan (Dunkirk star Fionn Whitehead). Do I sabotage him by forcing him to break his computer, or show mercy and let him collect himself? This capricious-god feeling stems from a lack of personal investment in Stefan’s rather indistinct story, a narrative more straightforward than its packaging proclaims. He has little personality beyond his all-consuming desire to make video games, lingering guilt from his mother’s death, and a fragile relationship with his father. He lands the gig of a lifetime at the hot production house in the then-nascent gaming industry (it’s the ’80s, and Brooker won’t let you forget it), and eventually the stress of programming combines with unchecked mental illness to push him over the edge. We merely exercise some influence over the path connecting Points A and B.
The friction between self-determination and predetermination heats up the episode, as Stefan grows cognizant of his own placement in a perpetually resetting Pac-Man game. To make sure we understand this, Brooker makes Stefan say, “I feel like I’m not guiding these decisions, like someone else is,” along with monologue after monologue about option-trees. The acid-head mentor, Colin (Will Poulter), who muses that a game was “ahead of its time, inasmuch as time exists,” spells it all out like he’s the foreword of John Barth 4 Dummies!, explaining that we’re all just characters in a tale told by someone we cannot hope to perceive.
Brooker rigs the game to reinforce this idea, slimming down our allotment of wiggle room in the narrative until we’re left with a choice between “no” and “no.” Already, Reddit users have constructed staggeringly detailed extrapolations illustrating just how little difference separates the option of “flush pills” from “throw pills away.” Certain elements of the story must take place in order for the plot to advance, the unstated goal being the success of Stefan’s in-universe game. Recurring faux-review segments deeming Stefan’s “Bandersnatch” to be a smash or a failure teach us what we’ve done wrong, and how to follow Brooker’s silent orders: Bury your dad’s corpse in the back yard, and you head to prison before you can perfect the game; but if you dismember his body, then you can tinker until it’s just right. Still, you’re basking in the glory from behind bars.
If Brooker’s real game is to chart the limits of the interplay between technology and narrative strategy, mission accomplished, though it’s a bit of a self-own. He’s making the argument that the choice gimmick doesn’t engender good storytelling, saying through Stefan that actual autonomy overwhelms a player, and then Brooker himself proves it on us. It’s not clear, however, whether we’re meant to accept that as a rationale for the long stretches of inertia weighing down what is first and foremost an episode of Black Mirror. The elasticity of this premise and its apparatus should have made room for more out-there whims to be followed, as in the fourth-wall-obliterating diversion that forces Stefan to wrap his brain around the concept of Netflix three decades ahead of schedule, which is easily the funniest thing Brooker’s ever done. If taking it all back is so easy, if none of this matters, why not do more?
Routes Not Taken
• Charlie Brooker’s predilection for New Wave and early synth-pop reaches a new height in this episode, which tasks Stefan with choosing between Isao Tomita and Tangerine Dream, then Thompson Twins and Now That’s What I Call Music! Vol. 2. Not to mention Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” providing an aural marker for the start of a new story-cycle.
• Will Poulter’s got one of those faces. I took a shine to the actor a few months my senior when I saw him as a wounded bully in Son of Rambow during our joint boyhood, and he’s matured into a supremely disquieting presence onscreen. He was just about the only one who knew what he was doing in Detroit, and he brings that same tense volatility to his role here. The acid-trip scene oversteps itself, but only just, and at least Poulter seems to be having the time of his life. In 2019, I’m keeping an eye out for him in Hereditary director Ari Aster’s new joint Midsommar.
• I grow weary of the in-jokes that don’t really do anything within the context of an episode, other than leaving little breadcrumbs for the online magnifying-glass clutchers to inspect. Why do the fictitious video games need to be named METL HEDD and Nosedive, if not to congratulate viewers on remembering the names of this popular series’ episodes? Saint Juniper turns up again, recalling “San Junipero.” But why? Are we that hard up for conspiracy fodder?