'Black Mirror: Bandersnatch': TV Review

Fun as a game, not as a drama.
12/28/2018

The interactive choose-your-own-adventure aspect is initially interesting, then time-consuming and ultimately not dramatically satisfying.

There is a meta moment in Bandersnatch, the new Black Mirror stand-alone interactive movie — much more on the interactive part in a moment — when one of the choices viewers will have involves the word "Netflix." Given that the movie takes place in the early 1980s, this is anachronistic to say the least. Clicking on it leads to a scene that is, well, pretty ludicrous and mostly unlike the rest of the movie and smacks less of clever self-referential promotion than pointless grandstanding. I would say that scene takes the viewer out of the story but the story is never really engaging enough to make you care about it in the first place.

And I say that as a huge Black Mirror fan. If the brilliant creator and writer Charlie Brooker (who wrote this particular movie) wants to make an interactive choose-your-direction-and-your-ending type movie then I'm all in for the experience, even if these things tend to be more gimmicky than intriguing, up to and including a master director like Steven Soderbergh and his recent Mosaic.

The troubles with Bandersnatch are similar to those of other interactive efforts, only multiplied, because it looks like Booker and director David Slade (whose previous Black Mirror credit is the "Metalhead" episode, which is referenced here) are more ambitious than the makers of any similar effort. Bandersnatch is listed as a 90-minute movie but, if you watch it on your computer, phone or tablet (as opposed to your TV, since most TVs aren't equipped for the interactive experience), the actual run time can be many hours. I went down that rabbit hole and, many hours later, wondered if just watching it on my TV without the ability to manipulate the story would have been a better option. And no, I didn't go back and find out because I had already spent multiple hours watching various divergent storytelling paths in Bandersnatch, many of them only accessible by rewatching some scenes I'd already watched once or twice at least, and by then the effort seemed well beyond the payoff. And that's really the bottom line here — do you want to play a game or be told a story?

Bandersnatch is set in the early 1980s and revolves around young Stefan Butler (Dunkirk's Fionn Whitehead), a game programmer who is suffering from anxiety (and likely depression) while living with his father, Peter (Craig Parkinson), who has raised him ever since Stefan's mother died in a train derailment when he was five. (Stefan feels responsible since he was supposed to go — but because he couldn't find his favorite stuffed animal rabbit, it delayed his mom to the next, and ill-fated, train.)

Stefan has been reading a favorite book his mother loved called Bandersnatch, a book with multiple realities and detours. You flip back and forth with it. Stefan has decided to make a video game out of it and is delighted that Tuckersoft, the company run by Mohan Tucker (Asim Chaudhry), loves the idea. Tuckersoft has already churned out lots of hit games from cult video game programmer Colin (Will Poulter), who is Stefan's hero. Colin takes a liking to Stefan and tutors him — and, depending on the choices you make, ruins him, or vice versa, plus a couple of other possibilities.

See? Choices.

Bandersnatch is at its most interesting when you make decisions that lead to a relatively linear and coherent storyline. There are multiple endings, however, not all of them satisfying or coherent. At least one is pretty abrupt and makes you start again (where you will choose a different option like a good monkey, and that one goes a bit longer, depending on the other choices you make along the way). Of course, once you get an ending you like, because it's satisfying to your sense of character development or story arc, the others then seem somehow less satisfying. And by degrees, they become less interesting as well, mentally taking you out of the story so that you are more concerned with covering all your options on the possible narratives. Once you realize that task is frustrating (your tolerance may vary), your interest is sometimes piqued again when you latch on to a longer storyline, but more often than not it all begins to feel like trickery or some kind of redundant exercise (even when it's not).

Are you following that?

If you like the ability to choose things as mundane as what music Stefan listens to or as important as whether he kills his father then, yeah, Bandersnatch is going to be immediately appealing. But even those curious people — hey, I can control this story — will probably encounter some fatigue at some point once the conceit loses its initial luster.

Others less inclined to create their own narrative might opt out early once they hit the first signs of being in a loop — which is inescapable because that's precisely what you're in, albeit multiple loops. There's an element of confusion as well in Bandersnatch that has nothing to do with the plot and everything to do with whether you're doing it right. I'm not sure that's the ideal viewing experience. At several "end" points, I was unsure if I'd covered all the available options. And since viewers can't really fast-forward through parts they've seen, even if there's not a lot of time needed until you are given the option of making a different choice, it's sometimes frustrating to realize you've chosen both options but then need to watch an additional plot diversion (because when that one leads to the next choice point, you've only clicked one of the two). Repeating these steps over and over again will likely feel like solving a puzzle instead of watching a TV series (or TV movie, if you must for Emmy purposes) and at that point your mileage may vary on this experiment.

That said, this wouldn't be Black Mirror without some kind of big picture. No doubt ardent supporters of Bandersnatch will point out that the manipulation is part of the experience, which is true and that many choices come fraught with moral conundrums that speak to your character or mankind at large, which also might be at least partly true. But that doesn't make the overarching story memorable or entertaining, at least dramatically. It might be entertaining as an experience or even an experiment, but I would argue that's only true part of the time, depending on the choices you make. Few series are as polarizing to their own die-hard fans as Black Mirror — look no further than the myriad episode rankings to illustrate this point (and my personal favorites are often buried deep on some of those lists and yet I love the series no matter the episode; it's just that not all episodes are created equal). I think Bandersnatch — yes, technically a movie rather than an episode for Emmy purposes — will rank somewhere below the middle of the pack when all is said and done.

It could be the "choose your adventure" you're looking for is simply another Black Mirror episode, which should be coming along soon enough and will have Brooker telling the story in full without your guidance. The best decision could be the one that's made for you.

Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Will Poulter, Craig Parkinson, Asim Chaudhry, Alice Lowe, Tallulah Haddon, Fleur Keith, Laura Evelyn

Writer: Charlie Brooker

Director: David Slade

Available now on Netflix