As an experiment in pushing the boundaries of Netflix as a new storytelling platform, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is terrific fun. Hard Candy director David Slade and series creator Charlie Brooker have constructed something as impish and malevolent as we have come to expect from the techno-thriller series, while also embracing a whole new methodology for conveying that story.
In the style of a ‘choose your own adventure’ book, viewers of Bandersnatch are invited to make choices for Fionn Whitehead’s protagonist – a young game designer troubled by the death of his mother – as he attempts to code the complex, titular video game. The parallels are thus drawn between the game the character is creating and the world in which he exists, which is being controlled by an omnipotent deity – us. One amusing narrative cul-de-sac even allows the viewer to tell the character he is on Netflix, leading to a choice in which the viewer can press a button marked “fuck yeah” to trigger a bonkers fight scene.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Bandersnatch is a prime example of the sort of thing Netflix ought to be doing. They are not a traditional movie studio, so there’s no need for them to behave like one. Rather than cranking out 50 sub-par slices of bargain bucket trash – and a dozen or so excellent films – every year, they should be focusing on the things they can do that other companies cannot. Storytelling experiments like Bandersnatch fit the bill perfectly. Netflix created a whole new twist on its software in order to facilitate the film, which is a sophisticated and complex experience that would simply not have been possible just a few years ago.
But with that, we come to the reason Bandersnatch doesn’t quite shape up. It’s more successful as an enjoyable journey than it is as a complete storytelling exercise. And that’s because it isn’t really about anything other than itself.
The best episodes of Black Mirror, particularly in its Channel 4 days, were the ones that used their depictions of technology-induced doom to make a broader point about our society. Series One standout episode ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ is about the commercialisation of dissent, while Series Two episode ‘White Bear’ focuses on online lynch mobs and voyeurism of suffering. It’s difficult to make such a wider point about Bandersnatch, which exists pretty much solely as a meta commentary on audience choice. In the same way as Lars von Trier’s recent film The House That Jack Built, it’s about itself and little else.
This doesn’t make Bandersnatch a poor viewing experience by any stretch, but it does mean that when the credits eventually roll – usually after the software has helpfully cycled you through a couple of the half dozen or so endings – it’s difficult not to feel a little disappointed. The very nature of this storytelling style means that it inevitably feels unfinished, with many of the narrative strands looking a little neglected. Even once the viewer has reached their own personal ending, the format can’t help but make it feel like there’s still more to come.
Only an ending set in the future, in which the daughter of Will Poulter’s character begins creating the very version of Bandersnatch we are watching, feels like a true end point for the story. One thread in particular, which positions the protagonist’s world as an experiment carried out by a company with connections to his father, never gives the audience a satisfying explanation for what’s happening.
In giving itself over completely to a new brand of storytelling, Bandersnatch sacrifices the essence of what makes Black Mirror at its best so vital and interesting. As a result, the overriding feeling is one of missed opportunity. As an isolated Netflix Original Film, Bandersnatch would’ve felt special and unique but, for a part of the Black Mirror universe, audiences have been trained to expect something more.
The journey is a lot more satisfying than the destination and, ultimately, it’s a lot like playing a video game in more than just the superficial way of holding the remote control in your hand like a joystick. Completing the main story thread of a game is often only the beginning of its world, and that feels like it’s the case with Bandersnatch. It has taken the sleuths of Reddit hours and hours of multiple viewings to decode the various threads and create representations of the ‘decision tree’ that powers the experience, and that’s not something anyone but the most committed of viewers will do. For everyone else, it’s as if they’ve only skimmed a superficial path through the material.
This isn’t a movie, and it isn’t a video game, but it’s almost lost in the bizarre hinterland between the two with little of any meaning to do other than turn inwards and make jokes about itself. Often, all it seems to want to do is convince you to throw a cup of tea over a computer. That’s enough for a couple of hours of fun, but it doesn’t feel true to the genius of Brooker and Black Mirror. And I never did throw that tea.
All pictures courtesy of Netflix.