By, Julie W. ’19
Sugar Puffs or Frosties? Accept a job offer or refuse it? Kill your father or let him go? Netflix’s first interactive film, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, compels the viewer to make decisions that become increasingly difficult and painful as the story arc progresses. The film was released on December 28, 2018 as a standalone episode of Black Mirror, a science fiction television series that often comments on the consequences of technological advances. Like its Black Mirror predecessors, Bandersnatch raises questions about fate, free will, and the impact of technology on our lives. But the choose-your-own-adventure format of Bandersnatch makes it unprecedented—and questionable. “I’ve seen Black Mirror and I’m a big fan, so I’m kind of worried about watching Bandersnatch,” Lucy N. ’19 mused when asked about the show. “I’m scared the interactive setup will take away from the plot.” After having painstakingly clicked my way through many of the film’s endings, I’ve come to believe that Lucy was right to be wary. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is compelling, innovative, and excitingly self-referential—but its muddled plotlines and implausible characters leave something to be desired.
Set in the 1980s, the film follows the life of Stefan, a teenage programmer who pitches a choose-your-own-adventure video game called “Bandersnatch” to a startup gaming company. The narrative arc changes as the viewer makes certain choices, but every iteration of the story involves Stefan’s relationship with his father, his therapist, and an all-knowing computer programmer. As I watched the show, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of excitement and satisfaction seeing my choices play out in Stefan’s life—but these emotions were brought on by the concept of an interactive film, not by the film itself. Not once did I feel guilty that I had forced Stefan to kill his father; not once did I feel a sense of remorse when I made the computer programmer jump off his apartment balcony. Though impressive in its innovation and execution, Bandersnatch fails to connect the viewer to its characters—and this sense of connection is, I believe, what makes films worth watching.
“I feel as though the creators focused more on the new format than the story,” agreed Elizabeth X. ’20, but she added that “[this shift in focus] is completely understandable, as this is their first time releasing a movie in this format.” She’s right—I could be cutting Bandersnatch more slack; after all, it is the first of its kind in terms of execution. But her reaction begs the question: should Bandersnatch be viewed as a movie or as a video game? “It wasn’t really designed as a game. It was designed as a cinematic experience,” said executive producer Annabel Jones to The New York Times. But the creator of the show, Charlie Brooker, disagreed, saying, “[It has] game-y elements. You are making decisions. You are actively guiding it.” Ultimately, Brooker concludes that “some people will judge it just on a narrative basis, some people will judge it as a game … It’s not up to us. It’s down to them.”
Regardless of its label, is Bandersnatch worth the watch? When assessed based on its narrative, Bandersnatch falls short of my expectations. But if the viewer presses “Play” expecting an interactive, video-game-like experience instead of a film, they won’t be disappointed.