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Black Mirror – Bandersnatch (Review)

What exactly is Bandersnatch?

In narrative terms, it is very difficult to describe Bandersnatch, given the structure and format of the latest installment of Black Mirror. After all, two people consuming Bandersnatch might have very different experiences of it. It is possible for certain audience members to experience the narrative fundamentally different ways. Conversing about Bandersnatch largely involves defining what each participant experienced of the narrative, establishing a frame of reference for discussion. It is fascinating in this regard.

However, that is arguably an even bigger question. Is Bandersnatch an episode of television, given that it is being released under the Black Mirror brand by Netflix, even though it is being released on its own terms? Is Bandersnatch a film, given that it is a self-contained narrative? Is Bandersnatch just a video game, given how much it relies on audience participation? These are three very different classifications, and Bandersnatch blurs the line between each of the three.

Marshall McLuhan famously argued that “the medium is the message”, but Bandersnatch takes that a little further. What if we’re not sure what the medium is at all?

Netflix has been blurring the boundaries of media for years at this point. However, the question of what Netflix actually is has been the concern of only a handful of obsessive media observers who engage with form as frequently as with concept. To most audience members, Netflix is film and television combined. Hold the Dark, Outlaw King, Mowgli and Roma are all recognisably films, just released under the Netflix brand. Shows like Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Maniac are all television series, just with a new release mechanism.

However, Netflix has altered the way in which media is produced and consumed, changing the expected constraints of the format. Television is the name of the box that displayed the signal sent by television broadcasters, but it was also a format. Television storytelling was defined by limitations inherent in that broadcast format; everything from the aspect ratio, to the use of video for mastering, to the length dictated by scheduling and commercials, to the content policed by media watchdogs, to the weekly release schedule and conveyor belt production model.

Can Maniac really be considered a television series, if all eight episodes are released simultaneously and if all eight episodes are written and directed by the same people while being different lengths and eschewing traditional structural elements? This debate obviously existed long before Netflix, and there are countless examples of media that straddle the line outside of the streaming conglomerate; Twin Peaks, Dekalog, O.J.: Made in America, Shoah. However, Netflix brought the idea into the mainstream.

Little by little, Netflix has pushed the boat out in terms of what might be considered television. Is Luke Cage fundamentally a thirteen-episode series or a movie that has been chopped into thirteen smaller parts? What about the fourth season of Arrested Development, where the audience was given the freedom to watch the season in any order they wanted, a story unfolding simultaneously (rather than sequentially) across fifteen episodes? These are not approaches that audience from even two decades ago would recognise as television.

Bandersnatch feels like a logical extension of this approach. In fact, the Black Mirror feature film is being considered as a pilot for other adventures and initiatives in interactive storytelling for Netflix. The production of Bandersnatch is fascinating; its script was written in coding language, the treatment crashed, the production took a year-and-a-half, the code is smart enough to incorporate earlier decisions into later branches of the story.

It has been argued (fairly) that Bandersnatch is closer to a videogame than a film. Indeed, Charlie Brooker was inspired by the old CD-ROM “choose your own adventure” video games from the late eighties and nineties. Bandersnatch consciously folds this frame of reference into the narrative, with the story itself focusing on a “choose your own adventure” game at a fictional video game company called “Tuckersoft” by a deeply troubled young coder.

The production value on Bandersnatch is top-notch. The film is directed by David Slade, whose previous work includes films like 30 Days of Night and Hard Candy. Slade also directed Metal Head, which gets a sly few references in the narrative. The cast is headlined by Fionn Whitehead, the star (as much as there was a star) of Dunkirk, Bandersnatch once again using Whitehead as a hazily-defined protagonist figure. The supporting cast includes British character actors like Alice Lowe and Will Poulter.

The coding is also very impressive. Bandersnatch is not simply a branching point-and-click adventure. It is an arching narrative, in which small choices are remembered and allowed to reverberate, even on “reboot.” The choice of cereal at the start influences an advertisement glimpsed later in the story, the choice of music impacts the soundtrack. In certain cases, characters seem to remember what happened in “reset” timelines, such as Colin’s disappearance from the narrative after his death, or Stefan and Colin swapping lines in certain replayed scenes.

This is the beauty of Bandersnatch. The actual narrative itself is fairly simple and straightforward. In terms of plot, Bandersnatch is the familiar story of an artist who is driven slowly insane, who has a psychotic break under unmanageable pressure. Bandersnatch is of a piece with films like The Shining or In the Mouth of Madness or literally dozens of similar stories about dangerous media that might destabilise volatile minds. The video game setting is relatively novel, but the beats and rhythms of the story are familiar.

This is the point. Bandersnatch really has very little interest in the plot itself and the various trappings of Stefan’s departure from reality. Even the little details feel rote and familiar; the kind therapist, the back story about his mother and the responsibility that Stefan feels for his part in her death, the struggling father, the insane deadline, the mysterious back story behind the text which inspired the video game that is eroding Stefan’s sanity. The plot is incidental, a collection of familiar horror clichés arranged in a clean and effective manner.

In contrast, the heart of Bandersnatch is the format. Bandersnatch is built around the “choose your own adventure” style narrative from the ground up. The plot isn’t the primary driver of the experience, instead a thematic reflection of the game mechanic. Stefan is working on a “choose your own adventure” style video game because the film is a “choose your own adventure” style narrative. Bandersnatch is incredibly self-aware.

Colin at one point warns Stefan that free will is an illusion and that the narrative resets around them. Stefan comes to believe that he is part of a mind control experiment, and that his thoughts are not his own. At a certain point, it is possible for the audience to communicate directly with Stefan, as he pleads, “Give me a sign.” If the user repeats this branch of story, they can even tell Stefan that he is within a Netflix feature film, which leads to a variety of ridiculous world-breaking sequences that bring the fourth wall crashing down.

The characters in Bandersnatch repeatedly ruminate on questions of choice and free will, which emphasises the manner in which the “choose your own adventure” format deprives the characters of anything resembling this. At certain points, Stefan will fight the instruction given by the audience; at other points, he will seem actively puzzled as he does what he has been directed to do. Of course, fictional characters can never truly have choice or free will, but Bandersnatch literalises this.

However, Bandersnatch is perhaps most interested in the audience rather than the characters. After all, there is an implicit understanding that the film exists for the entertainment of the audience rather than for the benefit of Stefan. It is very revealing that the Black Mirror angle in Bandersnatch has no bearing on the internal mechanics of the story. Black Mirror is a technological horror, but none of the technology in Stefan’s world is exaggerated or invented. Instead, the Black Mirror element of Bandersnatch is the technology being used to deliver it to the audience.

Bandersnatch plays as a critique of horror movies, and as a pointed criticism of horror movie audiences. It effectively renders the audience actively complicit in the suffering of Stefan and the other characters, forcing the audience to make active choices in order to break Stefan’s already tenuous grip on reality. There are a number of endings to Bandersnatch that do not involve Stefan’s death or breakdown; working in-house at “Tuckersoft”, taking his medication, refusing to kill his father.

It is possible for Bandersnatch to end any number of ways. Stefan and his father watching a negative review on the television; Stefan catching a two-star review after his game is completed by somebody else; Stefan and his father embracing in the kitchen after Stefan declines to attack his father with an ashtray. That last ending even comes with a “Go to Credits” option that allows the audience to consider it a conclusive and definitive ending to the story.

However, Bandersnatch pushes the audience towards more morbid conclusions, understanding that these endings are not “satisfactory” conclusions for the horror story that the audience is anticipating. Bandersnatch baits its audience, teasing them to prolong or extend Stefan’s suffering by forcing him to make poor decisions; to develop the video game in isolation, to refuse to take his medication, to kill his father. There is an inevitability to these choices, to the point that Bandersnatch occasionally offers it audience a choice between two indistinguishable options.

It is possible to read this as a commentary on pre-determinism, most notably in situations where the narrative offers the audience only one choice or two identical choices; the “no!” that delays his mother and puts her on the train that crashes, the choice with the pills to either “flush them” or “trash them.” There is a sense in which Bandersnatch embraces Stefan’s idea that the best way to engage a player is to offer the illusion of choice rather than offering a choice itself. However, Bandersnatch is complicated enough that this is not entirely convincing.

Instead, Bandersnatch seems to be making a commentary on audience consumption of (and participation in) horror movies. Bandersnatch is a horror movie that makes the audience actively complicit in the suffering of the characters, inviting the audience to make decisions that increase and enhance the suffering of those trapped within the narrative for the voyeuristic satisfaction of the audience watching at home.

To a certain extent, most horror movies play into the idea of audience complicity. Audiences are buying tickets or otherwise encouraging the production of media in which they watch characters suffer for their own amusement. Many slasher movies literally put the audience in the killer’s perspective through the use of point of view shots. Other movies invite the audience to voyeuristically enjoy both teenage sexual indulgence and puritanical punishment of that indulgence.

In some extreme cases, the audience has been known to cheer for the killer in horror movies. Freddy Krueger was a child molester in A Nightmare on Elm Street, but has evolved into a pop cultural icon with a tendency to make terrible puns before brutally butchering his young victims. Hannibal Lecter could be described as America’s “most beloved intellectual.” In Psycho, there is a sequence which relies on the audience hoping that the marshland will swallow any evidence of Norman Bates’ crimes.

Bandersnatch simply takes that idea and pushes it to its logical extreme. The audience is no longer just passively consuming the brutal suffering of these characters, they are actively directing it. The Black Mirror element of Bandersnatch is nothing within the narrative, but instead the structural framework of the narrative itself. To put it another way, Stefan isn’t the protagonist of Bandersnatch, the audience member holding the remote is.

Of course, it could be argued that characters like Stefan and Colin are not real. They are merely fictional characters. After all, nothing that the user does while playing the game will impact Fionn Whitehead or Will Poulter. However, this is not how Black Mirror has traditionally approached empathy and horror. Black Mirror suggests that empathy says more about the person feeling it than the object on the receiving end, that a person’s worth is best measured by how they behave towards people and things towards which they have no obligation.

After all, the central characters of U.S.S. Callister are computer code; facsimiles of Robert Daly’s co-workers, but not his actual co-workers. Similarly, White Christmas presents Matt Trent’s treatment of the duplicate of Greta as monstrous, even though the duplicate is just a computer copy. Similarly, Black Museum suggests that Rolo Haynes’ treatment of Clayton Leigh is monstrous, even though Clayton Leigh is long dead and Haynes is just torturing a digital echo of the man.

Black Mirror is often misunderstood as a show preoccupied with technology, hence the dismissive criticism of it as “what if phones but too much.” This is an over-simplification. Instead, Black Mirror is more interested in the question of humanity. Often, Black Mirror measures humanity through empathy, particularly towards objects that may not meet the strict definition of humanity while approximating self-awareness.

The fictional characters in Bandersnatch are an extension of this. The audience knows that Stefan doesn’t actually exist, but should that matter if Fionn Whitehead can communicate Stefan’s suffering to us? If Stefan can approximate human suffering, what does it say about an audience that wants to see Stefan suffer, and which actively conspires to make him suffer for their amusement? It is an interesting conceptual question, one which raises uncomfortable questions about audiences’ relationship to the horror genre in general.

In some ways, Bandersnatch reflects a broader trend in horror over the past year or so, a recurring engagement with how the audience watches horror. Ghost Stories explored the idea that horror was an avenue through which humanity might explore deep seated anxieties. A Quiet Place featured monsters attracted to screaming. Lights Out featured a monster that could only move when the audience wasn’t able to see it. Bird Box featured monsters at which the audience could not look. All of these films engaged with the idea of how the audience watches horror.

Bandersnatch exists within that context, a broader conversation about horror. It is what might be described as “meta” horror. Films like A Quiet Place, Lights Out and Bird Box all literalised the process of watching a horror film; they forced the audience to be quiet, or to stare into darkness, or to look away from horror, all parts of actually consuming a scary movie. Bandersnatch builds on that, literalising the voyeuristic sadism of horror cinema by effectively forcing the audience to become complicit through action in the horror that they usually just hope to see.

Bandersnatch is too simple and too straightforward a narrative to be the best installment of Black Mirror ever produced. The actual content of the adventure is fairly standard stuff. However, the medium itself is remarkable. Bandersnatch is a frankly incredibly piece of work, even if it defies classification. Through Bandersnatch, Charlie Brooker is finally able to cast Black Mirror as a literal mirror, an ambiguous and uncomfortable moral fable that stars the audience playing at home.

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2 Responses

  1. I’ve only watched/played through once, but the ending I got was a literal, near word-for-word and shot-for-shot homage to an early “Twilight Zone” episode (“Perchance to Dream”). As far as I was concerned, that was a happy ending! Interesting that Stefan is punished if the user makes the “correct” choices, and that the user is forced to take drugs or commit murder in order to advance the story — there does not seem to be a way to just have Stefan complete the game and get a 5-star rating from that teenaged reviewer on TV.

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