For years, videogames have been evolving. What once was nothing more than a couple bars batting a ball around on Atari, we’ve gotten to the point where games are more than simple tests of skill. They’ve become grand stories, some of which are completely mapped out by the player and their decisions. Now, it looks like film could be evolving as well with the special Black Mirror feature, Bandersnatch…
…Directed by David Slade (30 Days of Night) and written by Charlie Brooker (Black Mirror), Bandersnatch takes place in a time before concepts like the internet existed and concerns a programmer named Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), who has been hired to adapt a fantasy novel for a gaming company. Weighed down by the stress of perfecting the game, Stefan finds his own reality becoming distorted.
Before I dive in here, I want to make two things clear: Because Bandersnatch is a complex beast with various outcomes at every turn, I will not be critiquing the overall story, as no one of us is going to have the exact same experience with the film. Instead, I’m going to talk about what Bandersnatch is, and why it matters. Secondly, Slade and Brooker deserve an enormous round of applause, no matter what the ultimate verdict on Bandersnatch ends up being. It is difficult enough to create and film one singular story, that to imagine writing/filming an intricate web of decision-based results and story twists is mind-boggling at the very least, and utter insanity from the viewpoint of an outsider. There, now that that’s out of the way, what exactly is Bandersnatch?
Bandersnatch is a “choose your own adventure” film, where the story reacts to timed choices which you make throughout. Horror fans may be familiar with the idea if you grew up on R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps” choose your own adventure books, or have played games similar to the popular horror hit, Until Dawn. Bandersnatch asks you to make decisions on what may seem like mundane things, such as the film’s first choice between eating Sugar Puffs or Frosted Flakes for breakfast, to whether or not to kick your dad in the balls, and finally much darker choices, such as the decision to kill. It’s a brilliant concept that offers exceptional replay value, because depending on what you choose, you’ll experience a different version of the story each time. Bandersnatch is not the first to do this, having already been beaten to the punch by special edition discs like Final Destination 3, but to my knowledge, it has never been done on such a widely popular platform such as Netflix. And, based on the reaction so far, we could end up seeing a lot more films like Bandersnatch in the future.
What works so well about the concept, is that while films like Final Destination 3 may offer a more simplistic version of the idea, Bandersnatch’s very nature is a commentary on the concept itself. For a while, we have fun sweating over what damn cereal we like better, but it isn’t long before Bandersnatch reveals its true face, and begins toying with us in the same way in which we are toying with Stefan. You see, at one point, Stefan begins to understand that he is being controlled. And not only does he understand that his will is not his own, but he speaks directly to us, wanting to know who we are, and what we want. Bandersnatch offers us a choice as to how in detail we get with Stefan, but the real games begin when we come to realize that, like Stefan, we are not truly in control. Bandersnatch offers the “player” this feeling that everything revolves around us, and why not? We are after all deciding whether or not Stefan should karate chop his dad or give him a good nut shot. But the genius of it all is that Bandersnatch, or Slade and Brooker, shall we say, are the ones who are in fact controlling us.
Bandersnatch drags us along for a while, letting us think we are making all of the decisions, but we’re not. Bandersnatch and the filmmakers have a final goal which they want us to reach, and as time goes on, you’ll find that Bandersnatch will begin forcing you into decisions, either consciously or subconsciously, by manipulating you into choices through character dialogue, or straight up forcing your hand. So, in a way, the story is actually working two-fold. The concept that we are controlling Stefan with his knowledge is fun, but it’s when we begin to suspect that Bandersnatch is controlling us that things really get, well, creepy. Especially when we discover that, with each wrong turn, the “minotaur” of what I’m calling this maze of realities, an extremely well-crafted, terrifying creature, finds us/Stefan, scaring the shit out of us and knocking us back into the past. Is your brain starting to tingle yet? At least it’s not leaking out of your ears like mine after hours of wandering this digital maze. Without a “save point” in the story like you would see in video games with similar gameplay, it can be maddening not knowing how much longer you have in Bandersnatch, but it’s likely you’ll be so wrapped up in the process, you won’t mind. After all, you don’t really have a choice, do you?
As far as actual story goes, due to Bandersnatch’s direct interaction with us, certain moments aren’t just a bit on the nose, they’re an expositional anvil to the face. One moment in particular stands out, in which a co-worker at the gaming company, Colin (Will Poulter), actually lays out, beat for beat, exactly what is happening, regarding the control upon the control, alternate realities, outcomes, etc., all of it leading to a rather horrifying method of proving to Stefan that the world around him is not the only reality which exists. And then there are scenes such as when we ourselves speak with Stefan through a computer, with the option to attempt to describe that we are watching him through a show on Netflix. Which, by the way, I have never realized how alien of a concept Netflix would be to someone in a time period before the internet, so this is actually an entertaining moment, despite the heavy exposition. Scenes like these arguably work to manipulate the viewer/player into feeling as if they have the power, but in terms of storytelling, it only works to take us completely out of Stefan’s story, which leaves us feeling disassociated from him and the other characters. It’s one thing to watch a film, knowing it’s not real but engaging in the life of the characters anyway. It’s a whole other thing to feel as if they are our mindless puppets.
There is a flaw in which Bandersnatch operates, one that absolutely destroys the story itself: the fact that your decisions do not matter. See, in videogames which follow the same structure, we are making choices, but all of them matter. They have consequences that impact everything about the world which we are following. Take Until Dawn, for instance. Choose one hallway instead of another, and your favorite character may die. They aren’t coming back. In Bandersnatch, however, your choices don’t matter as much. Make the wrong decision, and the film will come back around and ask you to make that same decision again, encouraging you to choose correctly until it must take over. This style may work as a neat experiment, one which begs us to play again and see if we can make it through without error the next time, but it also means that we are less engaged, because no matter what we do, there does not seem to be any consequences. We are not made to live with our choices for full dramatic effect, which is detrimental to the film’s chances of involving the viewer emotionally.
Bandersnatch is a well-shot, intense sci-fi horror flick full of beautiful and macabre imagery that all fits perfectly into the Black Mirror series. Complete with some gruesome effects and the aforementioned terrifying creature which haunts the maze of Stefan’s realities, there is plenty to enjoy in Bandersnatch as only a film. But as much as I respect the work that went into designing the “gameplay”, Bandersnatch shows that this is not yet a concept which is ready to begin taking over the medium. But that doesn’t mean that films like Bandersnatch won’t one day become the norm, they very well could. Reality is always changing. Until then, you must ask yourself, which do you prefer, Sugar Puffs, or Frosted Flakes? Choose wisely. It could change your life.
By Matt Konopka