Movie Review : Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018)
* This review contains spoilers *
Digital choose-your-adventure experiences are older than you think. A company named Sierra Entertainment had success in the nineties with titles like Phantasmagoria and Police Quest, which were basically films where you funneled the characters through predefined paths by making choices in key moments. They were terribly acted and a lot of fun. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch didn’t invent anything, but it resurrected a cool idea and brought it to television audiences. But does it work and is it the future of mainstream storytelling? Well, I’m not sure Bandersnatch was ever interested in answering this question.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch tells the story of blue chip indie game developer Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead), who’s invited to demo a game he’s working on at Tuckersoft, in front of his rock star developer Colin Ritman (Will Poulter). He’s offered a contract by the company, but suddenly finds himself struggling against the weight of expectations. Stefan turns to Colin for help, who offers him LSD to “get him out of the hole". You can either take it or not, but either way Stefan is hurled into a universe of conspiracy where he’s lead to doubt whether or not he makes his own choices. But of course he doesn’t. You do.
Charlie Brooker’s latest project originally received criticism for not offering genuine choice to its “players”, but I believe it was the entire point. Bandersnatch is a metafictional wormhole that questions the notion of free will. It’s a choose-your-adventure experience about a choose-your-adventure game, where whatever choice you make creates an alternate timeline where the opposite choice is still available to you. If a choice leads to your death (or demise), Bandersnatch will teleport you back to where it went wrong. It’s like an interactive Schrödinger’s cat theory .
The key scene that allows you to understand what’s going on better is the LSD trip at Colin’s house. When him and Stefan are tripping balls together, he explains that the Pac in Pac-Man is an acronym for “program and control”, a metaphor for government conspiracy meant to rob people of free will. That even if you die, all you’ll do it wake up in that maze and consume for eternity. And, of course, within the context of Bandersnatch, Colin is 100% correct. In good Black Mirror fashion, it also alludes to you being a maze prisoner in a similar way since you’re playing a game that deliberately frustrates your desire for agency.
But is Black Mirror: Bandersnatch good? It’s entertaining. As Wisecrack pointed out in the Bandersnatch episode of their podcast Show Me The Meaning, the mechanics are somewhat distracting. When the choices are yours and not the character’s, it’s difficult not to see him as your soulless puppet. Charlie Brooker’s idea of blurring the lines of free will is great and well-rendered in Bandersnatch, but it doesn’t feel that different from playing these old Sierra Entertainment video games, back in the days. The novely factor carried it a long way, but it’s not exactly a major paradigm shift in the entertainment industry.