2018 Film Essays

Choose Your Own Bleak Adventure in ‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’

You open Netflix and notice that a new film titled Black Mirror: Bandersnatch has been added. Do you turn it on or binge-watch Stranger Things for the third time? The choice is yours, and it all depends on whether or not you like the idea of a film where you control the narrative.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is the first episode in the British sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror series billed as a proper feature film, but it’s more specifically an interactive film — you make choices throughout your viewing experience that impact where the story goes. It could be as basic as choosing which cereal the protagonist should eat (Sugar Puffs or Frosties?) or something more grim, like whether the protagonist should jump off a balcony or tell his coworker to do it instead. It’s not unlike the Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks, which were massively popular amongst kids in the 80s and 90s, myself included. Like CYOA, you essentially assume the role of the protagonist in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and make his choices for him. At various points throughout the film, two options appear on-screen and you have 10 seconds to make a choice (the game/film defaults to option 1 if you don’t make a selection in time). The film then continues, until you’re confronted with another decision. 

The core story revolves around Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead), a 19-year-old computer programmer living in 1984 England. Stefan has begun to develop a game based on a popular choose-your-own-adventure book titled Bandersnatch (this film takes meta to another level) by brilliant gamemaker-turned-psycho killer Jerome F. Davies. Stefan takes his game to video game company Tuckersoft, where he pitches it to owner Mohan Thakur (Asim Chaudhry) and wunderkind game developer Colin Ritman (Will Poulter). Impressed by Stefan’s revolutionary game (in which the player makes choices onscreen — see?), Thakur agrees to hire Stefan to develop Bandersnatch, and offers him an office and a team to help finish the game in time for the Christmas shopping season. And this is where the film throws its first “big” decision at you: do you take the cushy office and team or build the game at home, free from distraction?

There are five possible endings to Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, and like the CYOA books, your choices very often lead to dire outcomes (I got one of the worst endings possible, apparently). If you’ve seen Black Mirror, you know that writer/creator Charlie Brooker likes to explore the bleak possibilities of our obsession with technology, and Bandersnatch is no different. Stefan begins to lose control of his life in his pursuit to finish his game. When he’s not in his bedroom, working on the game around the clock, like a man unhinged, he’s arguing with his father Peter Butler (Craig Parkinson) or talking to his therapist Dr. R. Haynes (Alice Lowe) about his mother’s mysterious death. Whitehead (best known as the lead in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk) captures Stefan’s mania and paranoia, his descent into darkness, and you almost begin to feel bad for the choices that you’re making for the character. But it’s Poulter who really steals the show. His Ritman is the flip-side of milquetoast, insecure Stefan — cocky, rebellious, the punk to Stefan’s New Wave. There’s a scene where Ritman goes on an acid-fueled rant about conspiracy theories and mysticism that’s just so kinetic and fun to watch. In my “playthrough” of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, Stefan disappeared halfway through, and I missed his presence.

And therein lies my main issue with the film. It keeps you on edge, not knowing where your choices will take you, wondering what wacky twist this is all leading toward. Will Stefan travel back in time? Will the in-game monster manifest itself in the real world? But the unconventional structure strips us of a proper narrative. Yes, that’s the point of this experiment, but it also has the impact of making the protagonist an almost-blank slate and the plot somewhat scatterbrained. There were times where the choices I made felt important (Do I hit dad with the ashtray or not? Will I kill him?) and other times where the choices seemed like they were leading to the same outcome. There’s one path that led to an outcome so meta, where Netflix is an in-universe device, that I felt was a little too “look at how clever we are?” and cheapened the experience. What Brooker and Slade have done here is impressive — leave it to Black Mirror to produce something so inventive, that literally plays with technology — but this is the sort of thing that might be improved in years to come, as more interactive films are introduced and producers get a better feel for what works and what doesn’t.

Visually, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch captures the early 80s aesthetic well, with great music throughout (note: if you don’t enjoy Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax,” you might get annoyed). You actually get to decide which music plays in different scenes — will you choose the Thompson Twins or Now That’s What I Call Music! Volume 2? And aside from Ritman’s girlfriend Kitty (Tallulah Haddon), who looks like she just walked off the set of Blade Runner, the film mostly avoids over-the-top 80s cliches. The focus is on the plot, but like most episodes of Black Mirror, it’s slick, with some beautiful cinematography.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch kept my attention for 1.5 hours, and offers a unique story with memorable characters and cool music, but is it worth watching/playing? To use a gaming term, it’s got replay value, but it might leave those looking for a cohesive, more-traditional narrative choosing a different path.

John Brhel (@johnbrhel) is an author and pop culture writer from upstate New York. He is the co-author of several books of horror/paranormal fiction, including Corpse Cold: New American Folklore and Resurrection High, and the co-founder of independent book publisher Cemetery Gates Media. He enjoys burritos and has seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom way too many times.