Black Mirror: “Bandersnatch” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
The return of Black Mirror, in any form, always inspires a great deal of two emotions- excitement, and dread. Heady, existential dread that latches onto us whether watching on original broadcaster Channel 4 or the home of the last two series, Netflix. There’s been (often valid) criticism levelled against the changed atmosphere of some stories in the Netflix series, but Black Mirror is a rapidly changing beast, and with how clever series producers Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones have been in developing the show it was only inevitable that the wings would be spread and new paths would be ventured down. Whether that’s in the form of the sequential gut punch of Series 3’s Shut Up And Dance followed by the glorious San Junipero, or by tackling dating sites and intergalactic fantasies in Series 4’s Hang the DJ and USS Callister, I’d say it’s largely been successful. All prior experimentation pales in contrast to our first new foray into Charlie Brooker’s mind in a year, with not a new series but a one-off “Choose Your Own Adventure” special feature film- Bandersnatch.
Choose Your Own Adventure stories (let’s just say CYOA, for typing sake!) are no new invention of course, with a decorated history stretching through paperback children’s books, video games like 1983’s Dragon’s Lair, BBC Red Button features and more modern games like David Cage’s Heavy Rain. With the benefit of hindsight it’s not in the least surprising that Brooker and Jones eventually decided to take on a task like this (they initially resisted taking Black Mirror down this path, but went back on their decision when the story for Bandersnatch developed), considering the experimentation that the show has been reveling in recently. Yet the fact alone that there is over one hundred and fifty minutes of original footage (or over five hours, depending on who you believe) which supposedly features over two hundred and fifty segments and millions of possible combinations, is impressive enough.
Beginning our story in 1984 (which, more than likely not at all coincidentally, is when real life game developers Imagine Software’s planned Bandersnatch was cancelled…), Bandersnatch is the story of young, awkward computer programmer Stefan (Dunkirk’s Fionn Whitehead), who has a strange relationship with his father Peter (Misfit’s Craig Parkinson) and takes daily anxiety medication. We meet Stefan as he prepares to pitch a brand new game idea, a choose your own adventure game based on the novel Bandersnatch by Jerome F. Davies, left behind by his late mother. The game developer he is pitching to are the self-titled “Motown of Video Games”, Tuckersoft, headed by Mohan Thakur (People Just Do Nothing’s “Chabuddy G” Asim Chaudhry) and who employ cult programmer Colin Ritman (Detroit’s Will Poulter), a man responsible for a string of hit games. Your first choice that truly matters happens when you receive a job offer from Mohan- develop your game in-house, or work from home. Then, as “Bandersnatch” word originator Lewis Carroll might describe it, events go rapidly down the rabbit hole.
The promotional material for Bandersnatch hyped to no ends the fact that you, the baying viewer, had complete control over Stefan’s fate and every decision he takes. Initially at least, that much is true, with ridiculous early choices like choosing Frosties or Sugar Puffs for breakfast or what cassette to play easing you into the story and gameplay. The way Bandersnatch has been created is really quite impressive, and on my second viewing (play through?) I watched on my PlayStation 4, and noticed a rumble in my controller each time a decision was coming up to alert me. It’s all seamlessly integrated, a smooth functionality present when transitioning through options, the countdown smartly hiding loading screens.
It’s an expertly edited production, too, and you can’t help but be seriously impressed with how everything comes together no matter what you think of the story. As you move on from Stefan’s job offer and head off to the maze, you notice how the abridged versions of scenes link up, preventing you from watching too much of the same footage and keeping you aware. And the differences begin almost immediately, like Stefan noticing Colin’s Nohzdyve (get it?) game and the buffer error that comes from it. It’s a two way street, of course, as Colin notices during the test demo of Bandersnatch that the player shouldn’t worship Pax, the book’s demon, pretending he’s read the book from their last conversation.
The lives- the many of them- that Stefan and Colin share forms the core of Bandersnatch, as the story whirls around themes like alternate realities, pre-destination, the concept of time, choices made that can’t be altered, and regret. The comparison that Colin makes to PAC-Man, comparing it to a nightmare world like our own (this rant and the visuals alongside it are brilliant) is apt, and a good description for us the viewer playing Bandersnatch, whirling round the labyrinth, and of Stefan and Colin in the story. Colin is completely unbothered and nonchalant about dying, a “fair enough” the most he can muster before chucking himself off a building. After all, PAC-Man dies all the time, and “in as much that time exists” why be bothered about one small death among millions?
I found myself in my first play through genuinely trying to help Stefan, even though I knew this was Black Mirror and by the law of the jungle it was heavily likely to end poorly for him regardless. I didn’t even pick The Bermuda Triangle vinyl so much as I predicted (wrongly) that it would be a bad omen. Yet as I got lost in the story, and it became more outlandish, I found myself being nudged into more extreme choices. Was this my latent evil as a viewer coming out? The parallels to Series 2’s White Bear are present all throughout, from the subtler ones- is this a spiritual sequel, where we are the torturers this time instead of seeing through tortured eyes?- to the more obvious, like the glyph symbol. As Prevenge’s Alice Lowe’s fantastic therapist Dr. Haynes says, don’t we all want a bit more excitement?
Therein lays the brilliance of what Mr. Brooker and team have pulled off here. All the preamble of making all the decisions, affecting every last branch, was all bluster. Bandersnatch operates as- yes- a black mirror, to show you yourself and your choices plain as day. Choice, free will, it is all simply an illusion, and you’re part of the great game as much as Stefan. I received an ending almost straight off on my first play after about forty minutes, and you can (theoretically) have an ending just five minutes in, but the story keeps proceedings chugging along with playful nudges to the audience (such as Dr. Haynes suggesting it might be helpful to go for a different option, to revisit scenarios for exposition) to mask the darker intentions it has for us all. Bandersnatch also incorporates chucklesome lines such as real criticisms people have of CYOA games, like game mogul Mohan questioning that “it is still a game, yeah?”
Ultimately, it is. A game that we’re playing, only in as much as Charlie Brooker wants you to play it. You’re nudged toward outcomes regardless of what you choose often, giving you the complete illusion of control but a modicum of power. You’re rated on some outcomes, such as with the smarmy video game reviewer, or when you arrive at the “two and a half star” ending and are told you’re just going on autopilot and must do better. It jibes you to push you to your extremes as a viewer, actively guilt tripping you for some decisions. This, in fairness, is fitting for Stefan and the overriding guilt he feels of the death of his mother, which drives the emotional heart of Bandersnatch.
Stefan’s tale mirrors that of the fictional Jerome F. Davies (though he does share some similarities to science fiction legend Phillip K. Dick, seen on a poster in Colin’s home) closely, as he caves to paranoia and delusions including believing in a government conspiracy angle (an angle that is, perhaps disappointingly, not explored further). Davies is the forebearer of everything we see, and his ethos of ourselves simply being puppets to a guiding spirit mirrors our own journey playing (watching?) the game. The past is immutable, and cannot be changed, we’re told. Except we quite literally can change it, but it makes not a smidge of difference.
As I played the second time the fact that choices are largely an illusion anyway loomed over me, with the most desirable options eventually selected next time you choose. There are times like when Colin offers Stefan the acid, and even when you decline, he pops it in the tea regardless. Free will is meaningless here. It’s a wicked irony how the grisliest ending turns into the best rating for the actual game release, with Stefan himself commenting that he decides the ending, and only by parring back choices and presenting the illusion of control can the best outcomes be achieved. After all, why not just commit murder, especially when if in another reality- or after another click- Stefan, and you, are going to be doing just the opposite? You can even discover a gloriously meta ending where you fight Alice Lowe, leading to a director calling cut and a set pulling back. This too comes after Stefan talks to you the viewer, the voice of God, to “Netflix”. Let’s just say, I never expected to be able to choose to “KICK DAD IN THE BALLS” but there we go.
In the end I did come to an emotionally satisfying ending, with Stefan ultimately “time-travelling” through a mirror to take back his childhood rabbit that caused his mother to miss the train, before choosing to join her on the doomed carriage to die in the past and pass away peacefully in the present. Even though Stefan decided to join his mother this time, she was still late, as pre-destined, and now Stefan can be with her, absolved of guilt despite his fate. It’s a wonderfully bittersweet way to follow the madness of the proceeding events, as is the coda of Colin’s daughter Pearl (Silent Witness’ Laura Evelyn) trying to re-do the game for a “streaming platform” and getting re-stuck in the “THROW TEA ON COMPUTER” loop that Stefan fell into. I do wonder though, if most people will get the best out of this all. If you keep playing, sure, but for those who finish at the first seeming ending they arrive at?
Maybe that’s the million dollar question, which circles back to whether the CYOA format is possibly worth more delving into for the show and for adult storytelling in general. Netflix have already delved into the format for its children’s content, and HBO recently released Mosaic by Steven Soderbergh which is a fellow experimental series. But is it really the way forward, or is it better as a one-off? I resent calling it a gimmick, not just with how many times that word is bandied about carelessly, and I genuinely think this is the kind of story that the format enriches and bolsters. I doubt it’ll be the start of a larger trend of CYOA presence, yet the captured imaginations on social media for sure means that Brooker and co. have food for thought for future Black Mirror experiments. I’ve already seen many hailing it as a new dawn for the show, and maybe for more television like it, however there’s a plethora more that it simply didn’t resonate with as much as it being a standard story would. It’s all a bit Marmite.
Bandersnatch is understandably rather tricky to pin down. I feel like I appreciated the ambition and invention more than the core story itself being a knockout, while still being invested. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s no runtime bar when you watch Bandersnatch, not that it bothers you remotely. You’ll want to get lost in its labyrinthine threads and paths as much as I did, and although it starts slowly I fast found myself wound up in the possibilities and smaller details, falling down the rabbit hole as much as Stefan did. I didn’t know whether I believed in conspiracies, time-travel, fate, what mattered and what didn’t. Or whether I wanted Frosties or Sugar Puffs. As it lets you revel in the charade of choice, Bandersnatch’s hand slowly reveals and invites you into the paranoia and possibility. And through all of it, Charlie Brooker has us playing the exact game that he wants us to play.