Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
Directed by: David Slade, sorta
Written by: Charlie Brooker, kinda
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Alice Lowe, Will Poulter and You!
Length: 40 to 90 minutes, depending
Typically, listing the credits of a film is the easiest part of a critic’s job. All of the necessary information is right there in the studio’s production notes, or available for all to see on IMDb. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch throws a wrench into this task.
Yes, the Netflix movie (if we can call it that) is “directed” by David Slade and “written” by Charlie Brooker, and marks another instalment in Brooker and producing partner Annabel Jones’s ongoing anthology series pivoting on the dark side of technology. But Bandersnatch is also, in a technical as well as philosophical way, directed and written by … you. The viewer at home.
Before I lose you, let’s do something that Bandersnatch does often, and loop back to the beginning.
Typically, listing the credits of a film is the easiest part of a critic’s job. And with Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, it is! The movie (if we can call it that) is directed and written by … you. The viewer at home, watching the production unfold on Netflix, literally chooses their own misadventure.
This is because the content – and really “content” is the best word to describe Bandersnatch, as it’s neither feature film nor television episode; it just sort of exists – is the streaming giant’s most audacious, enjoyably maddening experiment yet in binge-watching.
By employing a new proprietary screenplay-writing tool called Branch Manager – which, according to a report in Variety “allows creatives to build complex narratives that include loops, guiding viewers back to the main story when they stray too far” – Netflix and the Black Mirror team have created a near-endlessly mutable interactive piece of entertainment that has the power to keep viewers engaged for hours and hours and hours. It’s a dystopic tool that may very well prove to be the first step in Western society’s true destruction (its ironic purpose is debatable, coming as it does from Brooker and Jones, whose sometimes exhausting Black Mirror exists to warn us of these things). But damned if it isn’t a fun ride, too.
Set in 1984 England, Bandersnatch follows an awkward, young computer programmer named Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) as he struggles to create the video game of the title, based on a choose-your-own-adventure sci-fi novel written by an author who eventually went mad. As Stefan works hard crafting endless alternate scenarios for his game – fight the demon blocking the hallway or worship it and become its slave? – he begins to fall deeper into his own madness.
On its own, Brooker’s narrative here is decent, a fine mesh of Aldous Huxley and J.G. Ballard. But the trick of Bandersnatch – half a neat gimmick, half a meta-contextual stroke of genius – is how one’s own viewing experience mirrors that of Stefan’s descent into obsession.
At various points throughout Bandersnatch, audiences are asked to choose between two possible onscreen actions. (If you’re watching on your laptop or smartphone, you use your mouse or touchpad to select the appropriate decision onscreen; most smart televisions will allow you to do the same with your remote, although Bandersnatch cannot be played via Apple TV or Google’s Chromecast.) Sometimes, the choice is as simple as deciding whether Stefan has Frosted Flakes or Sugar Pops for breakfast. The further you venture into Bandersnatch, though, the darker the choices become (“Bury the body” or “Chop up the body” popped up about an hour into my experience).
According to Netflix, the story can end as early as 40-minutes in, although the average is a 90-minute production (mine lasted about 55 minutes, after making 26 “decisions”). But with five possible endings and more than a trillion “unique permutations” of the narrative, Bandersnatch is the closest Netflix has come yet to engineering a true rabbit hole of content. What’s more: It’s a bloody entertaining hole to fall down.
Early on, Bandersnatch edges close to contrived stunt, a superficial twist to keep Brooker and Jones’s oft-cruel Black Mirror brand from running on fumes. Yet the feature, or content or product or whatever, is both filled with tricks and has something to say about the role audiences play in the creative process, especially in this era, where our viewing habits have the power to literally shape productions. (Say what you will about the strength or accuracy of Netflix’s much-ballyhooed algorithm, but at least the streaming giant is in on the joke here.)
Eventually, Bandersnatch goes full on through-the-looking-glass, with Netflix itself becoming a key plot point. Or at least, that’s what happened in the version I watched. Or the version I directed. Or the version I was led to believe I had a hand in making? It is all delightfully, hilariously, endlessly confusing.
And I cannot wait to get the chance to loop back to the beginning and start all over again.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is streaming now on Netflix.