Are you ready to press play on Netflix’s worst kept secret? For months, we’ve heard that Netflix and the minds behind Black Mirror were hard at work on a choose-your-own-adventure story as part of the upcoming fifth season. Rumors swirled that the entry would be a standalone film. Intentional or not, the December 28th release date leaked through Netflix press materials. Still nothing was officially confirmed until December 27th, when Netflix told everyone to “relax” and dropped the official trailer for Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.
Neither a Christmas special nor Black Mirror season 5 premiere, Bandersnatch introduces itself as a Netflix Interactive Film. For an optimal viewing experience, a pre-title sequence video instructs viewers to keep the remote control in hand. At key moments and seemingly mundane ones, two options will appear on screen and the viewer will be able to click to dictate the actions of the main character, thus influencing the direction and outcome of the story.
Choose-your-own-adventure games and novels have been around for decades – I was partial to Goosebumps’ take on the storytelling device as a kid. More recently, HBO debuted Mosaic, six-part interactive series from Steven Soderbergh. Netflix is hot for the technology, having previously deployed interactive elements on four children’s titles. The scope of this film, however, is enormous. As THR detailed in a behind-the-scenes piece, Netflix developed new memory technology to ensure fast load times for “cinematic” playback. The official numbers give Bandersnatch 250 different segments, five endings with multiple variants of each, a “default path” runtime of 90 minutes with the potential to run up to 2.5 hours, and over one trillion possible unique permutations based on viewers’ choices.
Bandersnatch, a term first coined by author Lewis Carroll in 1872 and the title of an abandoned ‘80s video game project by Imagine Software, now re-enters our lexicon as Black Mirror and Netflix’s expensive playtest (Reddit users caught that it was actually teased in the 2017 episode “Playtest”). Is it a gimmick, the next evolution of storytelling, or a plot-specific device that enriches the material? For me, it lands in the grey area of that venn diagram, though no viewer’s experience will be hard coded. You’re in control of your own experience… or at least that’s what Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker wants you to think.
Set in the early 1980s, Bandersnatch follows a young computer programmer named Stefan (Finn Whitehead) who is inspired to create a choose-your-own-adventure game based on a novel left behind by his late mother. The novel was written by Jerome F. Davies, a man ahead of his time, but also out of his mind – he went “bonkers” obsessing over alternate realities and eventually cut his wife’s head off. Despite the game’s controversial source material, Stefan presses ahead with his passion project and gets a meeting at Tuckersoft, a UK game developer. There he meets with the head of the company, Tucker (played by Asim Chaudhry who UK comedy fans best know as Chabuddy G from a gem called People Just Do Nothing, which is also streaming on Netflix), and a rockstar programmer named Colin (Will Poulter). After Stefan explains the premise of the game and shows them a quick demo, Tucker offers to buy the game and a choice emerges: Stefan can say yes and work from the Tuckersoft office or say no and counter that he needs to work from home. It’s at that fork in the road where my path truly begins, and the life I chose for Stefan turns dark in a hurry.
Out of fear of ruining the experience, I’ll stop the plot recap there. If you want to learn about the multiple endings, you can check out our piece breaking down each of the outcomes we’ve experienced so far. Within this paralysis of option, Bandersnatch crams in musings about predetermination, free will, alternate realities, and how the past influences our choices in the future. I questioned almost every decision I made from Stefan’s choice of cereal to putting the Into The Gap album by The Thompson Twins into his cassette player. It’s both terribly frustrating and undeniably engaging to go back and test out different options. Somewhere along the way I gave into the mad genius of Charlie Brooker: He gives us the illusion of autonomy inside of a story that is not only predetermined with finite outcomes, but is also a Rorschach test for each viewer.
At one point in my journey, Stefan’s therapist (Alice Lowe) remarks, “we can’t choose differently with hindsight.” Only you can go back and make new decisions at the risk of your head exploding from a complete mindfuck. I doubt the film will leave anyone feeling like they’re watched a cohesive, satisfying narrative. I’m torn between thinking that’s by design or proof that the storytelling device still has limitations and even visionary creators will struggle to move it beyond a sparingly used marketing ploy.
One viewing of Bandersnatch won’t settle that debate. It’s going to take several more viewings to feel like I have a grip on what Brooker, producing partner Annabel Jones, and director David Slade have created. As a critic the acting, set design, and story all feel secondary (though they’re roughly on par with the series’ good-to-great episodes) to our instant reaction to this “new” medium.
Because of these blurred lines between film, television, and the interactivity of a video game, Black Mirror fans will have to reset their brain and adjust their expectations going in. It feels like a disservice to Netflix and Charlie Brooker to compare this story to past Black Mirror outings considering it’s so specifically tailored to the interactive experience. However in the context of the Black Mirror series as a whole, at several points the film enriches the material that has come before it and further confirms that Brooker is building a shared universe within his speculative fiction anthology. By laying that shared universe groundwork and quite literally immersing fans of the show into his techno-paranoia ether, Bandersnatch should shed Black Mirror of the covenant yet inaccurate description as a Twilight Zone for the 21st century.
The show has entered another dimension, but time will tell whether we’ll view it as a one-off experiment or a groundbreaking moment for online video. It’s all too new, too exciting, and frustratingly mind-bending to process in the moment. Back to the beginning for me.