Black Mirror Bandersnatch review: Netflix and Charlie Brooker revolutionise TV, rob you of free will
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
Director - David Slade
Cast - Fionn Whitehead, Will Poulter, Asim Choudhry
Rating - 4/5
With Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, creator/writer/voice of a generation Charlie Brooker has done what he always threatened to do. He has created a piece of entertainment that topples the very notion of audience involvement; and in doing so has made his legions of fans complicit in his maniacal misanthropy.
Bandersnatch feels like a culmination of four seasons of Black Mirror - a show that always warned us this day would come, when humans and machines would somehow become one - and offers a glimpse into what the future of streaming entertainment could perhaps look like. It borrows elements from video games, specifically classics such as Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, created by David Cage, who under his Quantic Dream shingle has pioneered morality based gaming for a new generation.
Watch the Black Mirror: Bandersnatch trailer here:
Bandersnatch is both a throwback to and is inspired by those classic ‘80s and ‘90s Choose Your Own Adventure games and books, and in a quiet nod to George Orwell, is set in the year 1984. You don’t merely watch Bandersnatch; you participate in it. You decide where you want to take the story. You play God, literally.
Your subject is a young geek named Stefan (played by Dunkirk breakout Fionn Whitehead), who is consumed by a desire to design his own video game, encouraged by two game developers played by Asim Choudhry and Will Poulter. He bases the story on a popular (fictional) fantasy novel called Bandersnatch, which employs the same multiple choice gimmick as the show. It was written by a man named Jerome F Davies, who -- as one character conveniently explains -- was a ‘genius who went bonkers and cut his wife’s head off’. This is perhaps Brooker making some harsh (and rather unfair) admissions about himself, although Davies and Stefan’s personal tragedies are clearly meant to mirror each other.
Depending on what device you’re watching it on, you will be prompted to make certain decisions for Stefan. I streamed Bandersnatch on a Fire Stick, which is what I used to command him to eat Frosties instead of Sugar Puffs. The episode is available on most devices, except Apple TV and Google Chromecast, due to certain technical issues too complicated to get into here.
But deciding Stefan’s breakfast menu is the first (and least important) choice you’re asked to make. With his life in your hands, the story offers numerous possible permutations and combinations - about a trillion, according to a recent Variety piece - for how things could play out. As the plot progresses, so does the gravity of the choices you’re asked to make. Should Stefan confess his deepest, darkest secrets to his therapist? Should he jump off a terrace? You decide.
Video games have always been a great source well in Brooker’s storytelling - he once called Twitter the greatest game of the 21st century, and dedicated virtually every episode of Black Mirror’s fourth season to aspects of gaming and gaming culture. Long time fans will notice subtle Easter eggs for previous episodes in Bandersnatch, particularly Nosedive and Metalhead, the latter of which was also directed by David Slade.
Slade, probably best known to the masses as having directed the third Twilight movie - although his best feature remains his first, Hard Candy - brings his trademark frenetic visuals to Stefan’s story, which compliment his loosening grip on reality.
There are five possible endings to Bandersnatch, depending on where you send Stefan. ‘Playthroughs’ can last anywhere between 40 minutes to over two hours - mine ended at around 45-minute mark on the first run - with Slade reportedly shooting over five hours of usable footage. Of course, as Stefan says at one point, ‘free will is an illusion’.
There are subliminal cues hidden in plain sight all over Bandersnatch. Certain options will be highlighted, suggesting that they’re probably the ‘correct’ ones, and if you fail to make a choice within 10 seconds, the story will progress regardless. As in video games, when Bandersnatch suspects you’re about to make a ‘wrong decision’, it’ll have a character double check with you if you’re sure. On other occasions, your choices will be validated when a character says, ‘I like your style.’ In the world of Black Mirror, we’re all pawns of Charlie Brooker, falsely made to believe that life has meaning and happiness (in case you haven’t yet noticed) is often an unattainable fantasy.
At one point, however, I strayed down an obvious dead end out of sheer curiosity, and was met by the most ludicrously imaginative and enjoyable meta narrative. Bandersnatch is designed keeping in mind that the viewer is likely to explore all possible avenues, unless of course their first run-through fails to leave an impact. Again, like video games, the story has multiple ‘checkpoints’ that’ll you’ll be made to return to after making dumb decisions.
All this does take away a sense of urgency from the story, which is, when compared to Black Mirror’s high standards, ironically straightforward. When you know in the back of your head that it is possible to reverse certain decisions, the stakes are immediately lowered.
But this is part of the experience, I suppose. Bandersnatch is a heady experiment that opens up a whole new world of possibilities for streaming entertainment for adults - although Steven Soderbergh beat Netflix to it, with his HBO murder mystery, Mosaic.