TL;DR – While there is some clear potential in the interactive story model, my particular playthrough of Bandersnatch was less engrossing and for me more frustrating than anything else.
Score – 2.5 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – There is no post-credit scene
Black Mirror is a series that is always looking to be on the cutting edge of narrative storytelling. It twists worlds in on itself, leads the viewer down the garden path only to cut their legs out from underneath them, or destroys the nostalgia we have for the past, or indeed the hope we have for the future. So, when it dropped a couple of days ago that there would be a feature-length episode, well that was some interesting news, but then when it was announced that it would be a ‘chose your own adventure’ with multiple endings and user interaction, well this went from intriguing to must watch in a heartbeat. However, now that I have seen it I feel that maybe the idea did not match the execution. Also, because this is a chose your own adventure, it actually makes it difficult to review because my experience is going to be possibly a lot different to what yours will be. Maybe I just drew the short straw and hit all the frustrating options, maybe you’ll be luckier than me, which from the discussions on the internet might just be the case, I just simply do not know. Well with that in mind let’s take a dive into a world with multiple paths and endings.
So to set the scene, it is 1984 in England on the cusp of video games really showing what they can do. Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead) is a programmer and even though he has had a difficult life, he is taking the first steps into the field he wants to work in. He has a meeting with Mohan Thakur (Asim Chaudhry), to make a ‘chose your own adventure’ based off the novel Bandersnatch which is known for its multiple and in-depth storylines, oh and also that at the end of writing it the author Jerome F. Davis (Jeff Minter) had a psychotic break and decapitated his wife … so not great. However, Mohan takes a shine to Stefan, and his key game creator Colin Ritman (Will Poulter) sees the potential. Thus, Stefan is given an option, work on the game in-house, or at home, and so the ‘chose your own adventure’ begins. Now from this point onwards, I am going to put the [SPOILER] warning up because to discuss the story, you need to talk about the branching storylines, choices, and at least one of the film’s endings.
From the start, there is an interesting story here, and I do give the people behind a lot of credit for crafting an interesting universe. We have hit that 30-year nostalgia cycle and there is a lot of drive for this time period, whether it is the pop culture explosion that is Stranger Things (see review), or the Technicoloured Dreamcoat that is Mandy (see review), or even retro-inspired video games like Return of the Obra Din. Bandersnatch fits into this world like it is a comfortable pair of socks, exploring the world that goes behind the one we see, the world of computer programmers and game designers. It also touches on a lot of important themes, like the stress of creating and the damage it can do to you, the weight of the past and how it can hold you down, the role of free will in our lives, and the relationship between media and audience. You see that influence, in the lighting, in the surreal drug trips, and even in the blandness of the costumes, and the awkwardness of the technology. All of these points have a real impact on the film, and the audience and it was good to see them explored, even if they do get conspiracy theory-ish real quick.
Well, there is one reason you are probably going to watch Bandersnatch and that is for the interactive storytelling aspect, which has not really been attempted before in the visual medium, as far as I am aware besides that one Futurama episode where they end up getting Calculon to do all his tedious paperwork. Unfortunately, it is also the part of the experience that really didn’t work for me, and as I said this could just have been from my choices, but I really don’t have the drive to reboot it and try it a new at the moment to see if it pans out differently.
For me, the experience was less an interactive novel but more of a linear story masquerading as a ‘chose your own adventure’. It felt like the ephemeral choices like which song to put on, or which product placement cereal to eat were a free choice, but anything of substance had only one right answer. You see this in the office at the gaming company where you get your first substantial option whether to accept or turn down the offer of employment, so of course, you say yes, only to be told you had ‘made a bad choice’ and have the film end in ten minutes. Now this choice was fine, because it was explaining to you how the system worked, and it had a flow-on effect throughout the narrative as you did a quick catch up back to the point. However, this was but the first of many, many, many dead ends for me. Now, as I have said I could have just gotten unlucky, and how I ended up roleplaying Stefan turned out to be me running him into as many brick walls as I could find. However, the constant restarts really started to drag after a while.
This is not helped that each point where you get to pick an option kind of rips you out of the story because it takes about 10 seconds for you to pick. So once you pick your option, you have to sit there and watch them awkwardly play out this stalling banter that feels out of place. I know you have to give time for people to pick, and this is not a quick-time game, but when you have to go through the same choice options more than once, well it is like having to watch the unskippable cut scene before a boss battle over and over again.
Indeed, one area that Bandersnatch is clearly taking inspiration from is yes the ‘chose your own adventure’ novel, but also the branching storylines of Video Games. While in many cases Video Games narratives do still lag behind other forms of visual storytelling, one area where they do excel is the branching narrative. You can have everything from the soft-branching style of the Mass Effect series, to the bonkers insanity of Zero Time Dilemma, and everything in-between. However, the one thing that those games do is hide the seams so it feels like a contained experience, like this is your story, and only your story, or they expose everything, allowing you to jump in and out of timelines at a click of the button. Bandersnatch falls into the middle area, where clearly you don’t have one narrative to work from, but nor is it easy to explore the timelines at a whim, only get to go back to that last point because apparently they Really want you to go back and talk about your mother.
It also meant that when I did finally hit an ending with my father’s decapitated head adorning the wall, it felt less like an earned ending, and more like something I had to brute force until I found the right combination. This is frustrating because, towards the end, they start playing on the themes of agency between the viewer and the media and shifting the mirror back on the audience, as to why you are doing this, but by this point, I had become just frustrated with the whole endeavour. Also, I feel that a good example of this relationship being explored is Spec Ops: The Line, and I will always use an opportunity to plug how good this game is.
In the end, do we recommend Black Mirror: Bandersnatch? Look it is a hard maybe. I have been reading peoples impressions online and they seem to be having almost a universally better run through than I did. So maybe I am just the poor fool that landed into the worst case scenario. This means that you are likely to have a much more interesting time with Bandersnatch that I did, however, it also means that there is a worst case scenario out there, and that you may hit it like I did. Maybe after some time has passed I might go back and give Bandersnatch another play though and explore the other possible endings, but not today.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
Directed by – David Slade
Written by – Charlie Brooker
Music by – Brian Reitzell
Cinematography by – Aaron Morton & Jake Polonsky
Edited by – Tony Kearns
Starring – Fionn Whitehead, Will Poulter, Craig Parkinson, Alice Lowe, Asim Chaudhry, Tallulah Haddon, Catriona Knox, Paul Bradley, Jonathan Aris, AJ Houghton, Fleur Keith, Laura Evelyn, Alan Asaad, Suzanne Burdan & Jeff Minter
Rating – Australia: MA15+