*** This review contains minor spoilers for Black Mirror: Bandersnatch ***
As someone who thinks modernity’s rampant consumption culture is a disease destroying us from the inside, there is something dystopian and offensively post-modern in the idea of a customisable piece of film.
Art was once viewed as a communion between a highly skilled artist and the metaphysical realm aiming at presenting a divine truth to an audience. The devolution from this into a choose-your-own-adventure where “meaning” in the form of a cheap novelty is co-created by the average viewer represents everything degenerative about modern and post-modern art.
I must admit I was entertained for a while by Bandersnatch. At first, I enjoyed how meta the film is. A choose-your-own-adventure film about the development of an 80’s choose-your-own-adventure game based on a choose-your-own adventure novel where an existential crisis over the nature of free will is a constant theme.
Those yet to watch (play?) Bandersnatch probably expect an interactive film a bit less than 2 hours long where they make choices that set the rest of the story on uniquely diverging paths. This is kind of the case, but not really. On a second and third viewing, I realised just how often the film diverges for a 10 minute scene based on a choice, only to converge back onto the same path soon after it. Many of the divergences are even different purely in their content such as dialogue and not in the overall nature of their implications.
There are choices that literally aren’t choices. There is one section where you are allowed to choose only “No”. I left the timer to run out to see what would happen, and the “No” choice is selected by default. This turns out to be a fairly pivotal plot point, so it’s odd that they dealt with it in this way. It’s likely this is meant to be dripping with the kind of self-referential irony Black Mirror fans are used to (it’s a choice the main character later laments not having control over), but to me it exposed the shallowness hiding just behind the curtain. There are other choices, even ones very early on, which lead the film to an abrupt conclusion.
When you make a choice that brings you to an “ending”, you are given the option to return to certain pivotal choices you declined so you can explore other avenues without having to watch the whole film from the start. Again, this has novelty in that it’s self-referential; “Would you like to talk about your mother? Even if you feel you’ve been through this before, it can help to revisit things” the main character Stefan is asked by his therapist. “The past is immutable. We can’t change things with hindsight, we have to learn to accept that.”
For all my criticisms, the acting deserves the utmost praise. Will Poulter’s portrayal of game coder (“the”) Colin Ritman stands out in particular. His LSD-induced rant (“the government pays people to be your relatives and they put drugs in your food”) is highly memorable, and not just because I’m partial to a zany conspiracy theory myself. Fionn Whitehead as main character Stefan and Alice Lowe as therapist Dr. Haynes give similarly noteworthy performances.
Like almost everything with the Netflix brand on it, it’s hard to fault the aesthetics. Heavy on color televisions, shag carpet and British brutalism, Netflix somehow keeps making 80’s nostalgia seem fresh. A choice to customise the soundtrack with 1 of 2 throwback hits is another cool little novelty.
Ultimately, Bandersnatch provides an extremely interesting and unique simulated experience of psychotic dissociation that is made possible by its innovative form. Unfortunately, the more time I spent with Bandersnatch the more rapidly I realised how intellectually barren the writing was. Most of this results from it trying to be too much in too condensed a form. The sum total of fully articulated ideas animating the narrative can be summarised in a line from a documentary Stefan watches during the film; “free will is meaningless, nothing but an illusion”. It’s not even a particularly well-written line.
If you need confirmation that I’m not just shitting on a Black Mirror episode to make myself feel smart, look no further than the reaction from various over-excitable journalists (If you can call people paid to blog about Netflix shows and celebrity tweets journalists). It’s caused Gizmodo’s Beth Elderkin to “wonder if I’ve lost the ability to control my own life” because she’s spent a few hours watching it like everyone else. Editor-In-Chief Jason Koebler of Vice’s technology offshoot Motherboard observed, “perhaps there is another layer of commentary to “Bandersnatch.” We are subconsciously choosing our own adventure, all the time.” Wow Jason, we really do live in a society.
Even worse is the circlejerk currently going on in the Black Mirror subreddit. Here is one highlight from the current top post:
Though I found it disappointing, I certainly recommend checking out Bandersnatch if you already have a Netflix subscription and find yourself a couple of hours to kill. It’s certainly a cool novelty, just don’t be oversold on it by the mystified Netflix zealots singing its praises as “the future of Television“.