Netflix’s new experimental film has a lot to say about mental illness, destiny vs. free will, and a total dedication to art.
I am finding it hard to parse my thoughts into something streamlined and cohesive after spending three hours digging through nearly every choice-tree of Black Mirror’s newest release on Netflix: the part-movie, part-game, Bandersnatch. But before I attempt to lay my conclusions out like a busy mess of puzzle pieces, some background:
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’s core story follows Stefan Butler (Dunkirk’s Fionn Whitehead, continuing what are proving to be stellar career choices) as a young programmer in Britain in 1984. He is adapting a dictionary sized choose-your-own-adventure book into a similarly ambitious video game. Catching the attention of a publishing company, Stefan is given a publishing deal and taken under the wing of veteran programmer and Stefan’s personal hero, Colin Ritman (fantastically portrayed by Will Poulter). In his total devotion to the development of his game, Stefan’s reality begins to warp around him, and his sanity slowly slips away.
And now, let’s get to the puzzle pieces:
There’s a lot to unpack here, and most of it is fascinating. Netflix and Black Mirror have succeeded in providing a truly innovative and fresh experience with this experiment. Even now, minds across the internet are arguing whether it should be considered a movie or a game. I would call it a movie, as it is primarily a visual experience even with viewer input, However, like a single-player RPG, it does individualize the watching experience. This kind of a film can’t be seen in theaters and might lose some impact being seen in a group. It’s singularly a transaction between the story and the viewer.
Bandersnatch gives us a fragile protagonist in Stefan. Plagued with guilt over his mother’s death when he was a child, he is forced to attend therapy by his concerned father, while he slowly retreats into himself and his creation, where choices can be made and remade, throwing the future into an infinite blend of permutations not unlike our viewing of the movie itself. Yes, there are ten layers of meta storytelling piled on here, all intricately stemming from Stefan’s character motivations, right down to the concept of different timelines, and back up to us on the couch, choosing what cereal Stefan eats for breakfast. The thematic relationships are mind-boggling, and it is difficult in the moment to wrap your mind around just how precisely they all fit together.
As Stefan’s fragile psyche chips and cracks at the relentless assault of the choices the viewers force him through, his reality increasingly distorts, giving us some truly reality-bending and at times shocking imagery. It also breaks the 4th wall in a way that doesn’t feel like a gimmick, for as Stefan increasingly loses control, we increasingly gain it over him, to the point where the narrative is no longer driven by what he wants, but what we make him do. It begs the question, do the viewers cause Stefan’s madness and then leave him to the consequences when the credits roll? It’s a horrifying realization, especially considering the endings the film serves up.
As always, Black Mirror is a cautionary tale, and, of the seven endings I discovered, none of them are particularly happy; most of them are downright bleak. It’s hard to ignore our complicity as choice-makers in the gaining of these endings, like it’s not simply Stefan’s fault, but ours too, for our active participation.
Bandersnatch also does a good job letting you loop back to experience as much of the diverging narrative as you can. Some choices are bigger than others; some direct you one particular way no matter what you choose, while the largest ones create forks in the plot, making you potentially miss whole scenes. It is forgiving, however. A few times, I followed some of these diverging points to their ultimate conclusion, then was given the option of popping all the way back to the first fork, to follow the other way.
As a piece of experimental film, Bandersnatch is wildly successful, but this new style of interactive storytelling has some downsides, chiefly, the multiple endings. I know, diverging paths and differing choices mean we can’t all end in the same place, but think about what films generally are: cohesive stories with and underlying message. Often, the ending is what ties it all together and hammers the message or moral home. The nature of Bandersnatch’s interactivity makes this somewhat difficult. Yes, the endings are dark and bleak, but they kind of just end, fizzle out, exhaust the oxygen in a vacuum. The endings don’t have gravitas, which is instead infused into the playing out of the different timelines. But that should in no way detract from the journey itself, which pulls inspiration from all corners, from Steve Jobs to George Orwell; from straightjackets to fever dreams.
In Bandersnatch, the creator of Black Mirror has made something truly unique and ambitious, and Netflix shows once again why it is one of the most relevant media platforms out there today, continually taking risks and letting creators push boundaries with their work. I’m excited for what comes next.
P.S. When you see it, choose Netflix. You'll thank me later.