Choice is an illusion, right? That’s what you keep hearing in cynical media – Charlie Booker, writer of the entire Black Mirror-verse, clearly believes it. And at face value, it seems to be what the latest entrant to the series, Bandersnatch, is trying to convey.
Bandersnatch is a Semi-Interactive Cinematic Experience, or “David Cage video game,” where you watch a movie about a would-be game developer who is building a Choose Your Own Adventure title called Bandersnatch, and you are periodically given the ability to choose his adventure. But, because this is Black Mirror, he figures out that he is being controlled and yada yada yada.
It’s a fine enough premise, and if Netflix was going to be game-ified, then a Black Mirror spin-off is an appropriate way to introduce that. But… did it have to be this one?
You will know how you are going to feel about Bandersnatch about ten minutes in. At that point, you are given your first Important Decision: Should protagonist boy Stefan do a thing that seems like it is the basic premise for the rest of the movie?
If you thought, “Yes,” joke’s on you, because the bad cop from Detroit literally puts his hand on Stefan’s shoulder, says it was the wrong choice, and leaves. Flash forward: bad ending. Flash back to the beginning.
“Cute,” I thought.
But it’s not just that you’re sent back; it’s that when things happen again – just the key moments – there are some changes. Specifically with programming wiz Colin Ritman, aka the bad cop from Detroit (who is also in other things but that’s what I remember him from don’t @ me). He recognizes Stefan and doesn’t know why. Stefan knows things about the conversation they’re about to have that he didn’t know the first time around.
And then you get back to the same conversation and the same question and you choose correctly this time. Because the choice was an illusion. But you were still supposed to say Yes, because that’s how you see the rules of the game. That’s how you learn that the obvious answer is not always (or perhaps even ever) the “right” one, and that what seems to be the right one could immediately end things. Not only is Stefan’s choice an illusion because he is being controlled by you, your choice is an illusion because it is being controlled by the creative team behind the project.
I too played Bioshock in 2007.
But where Black Mirror in general wants to expose something about the world we live in, Bandersnatch never gets beyond the fourth wall, even as that wall lays shattered before it. Bandersnatch is, instead, commenting on itself. If it is trying to implicate the audience in its crimes, it doesn’t even do that as well as Funny Games, let alone something like Spec Ops: The Line.
And this renders Bandersnatch toothless. When the best episodes of the show end and the picture cuts away and you see yourself in whatever Black Mirror you’re staring into, you are literally confronted with the thing it is usually condemning and ever-so-rarely celebrating. And then you think about it. Or try to, before Netflix forces you into the next one before you’ve fully processed it.
The auto playing binges that Netflix pioneered (or at least popularized) make it so easy to just watch everything forever but aren’t particularly conducive to grappling with the themes of multiple disconnected narratives – or even a single connected narrative. There should be time to think. But you don’t even get the credits to do so anymore.
Netflix is kinda bad, y’all.
Anyway, when you are revealed in the reflection of your screen at the end of Bandersnatch, your first thought is never “Wow, how interesting. I wonder what it means.” It’s, “Huh. I wonder how else that could have ended.” and then you keep playing.
Years ago, I wrote an article about the David Cage-directed semi-interactive pseudo-cinematic experience Beyond: Two Souls. Specifically, it was about my fervent belief that you should not play it or games like it more than once. When you get to the credits, you should break the disc or delete it from your hard drive and be satisfied with it, even if the ending wasn’t satisfying.
That’s because a second time around is like looking behind the green curtain. The seams pull apart and the thing is laid bare. In the context of a gameplay-less dramatic narrative, it tends to result in a less effective experience.
I think I would have liked Bandersnatch more if I had taken my own advice.
I did not stop when I reached the credits. But this is partially because of the way that the endgame, as it were, is presented. After the credits, you are not set to autoplay whatever other nonsense Netflix is trying to force down your throat instead of ROMA, which is what they should be doing that with; instead, you get a chance to go back to specific decisions and try again.
Except, that’s a terrible idea, because once you’re doing that, you’re completely out of context of the narrative. How did I get to this decision that I’m changing? Heck if I know. But I guess I’ll try the other way a couple of times and see what happens.
Wow. That was boring.
A criticism I often hear of parodic narratives is that it isn’t enough to merely recreate a bad thing in a jokey way. Calling attention to something in a slightly different context does not deconstruct the thing; rather, it perpetuates it.
And though Bandersnatch isn’t parody, it gets caught in the same trap. It’s not a deconstruction of the choose your own adventure genre, despite being a part of a franchise ostensibly about societal deconstruction. Nor is it a celebration, despite being about a guy who is, like, super in love with choose-your-own adventure narratives. So what is it? A slightly interesting, mostly dumb attempt at a new type of Netflix experience. A little thing to be poked and prodded, and a better version of which to be expected in the next few years.
But instead, it’s a massive deal that people are still talking about. And that’s in large part because it’s Black Mirror. Netflix’s acquisition of the series is not a bad thing, but it is unequivocally a change. And Netflix seems to largely treat it as one of the more prestige properties that it’s gotten its grubby hands on. Whereas Bird Box is a new garbage thing, Black Mirror was established and beloved. Getting more people to see it is cool, and even giving it the option to expand in new and odd ways is something that I think is worthy of consideration if not necessarily praise.
But also, just because something is part of an established, respected series does not mean it is inherently worthwhile. Bandersnatch is an experiment, and not a particularly good one. So, for it to receive the attention that it has is, inevitably, a Netflix thing more than a Black Mirror one.
It’s literally impossible to keep up with Netflix’s release schedule, so you have to trust their big marketing pushes to point you in the direction of The Good Stuff. They hide at least as many Netflix Originals as they promote, so it’s not like they’re just pushing their own stuff at the expense of everyone else – though that is true. Unfortunately, you just can’t do that. Because Netflix’s decisions about what’s good feel as arbitrary as Bandersnatch’s choices.
Four Point Five out of Ten