Rating: 2 out of 5
Technology is scary, especially in the rapidly changing landscape of our modern age where our dependence upon machines has reached a pinnacle. I cannot think of a group of writers more frightened by it’s effects on our lives than the folks who write Black Mirror. For four seasons (and an upcoming fifth) the show has explored the invasive manner in which technology has mingled with our schedules, routines, feelings, emotions and physical forms. The crews latest experiment, the feature length Black Mirror: Bandersnatch takes their stoned paranoia to new heights with a choose your own adventure film. Along the way they attempt to make comments on everything from video games, to filmic exploitation, to whatever pseudo-philosophical bullshit they have Will Poulter spout, but at its core this film is about the way we the viewer interact with content. For a show that has made its name on sadism, here comes their attempt at self-referentialism, pointing the remote towards the audience, inciting us to reckon with our bloodlust and masochism. In an effort to become self-conscious and comment on itself, Bandersnatch exacerbates all the worst qualities of the show, while doing little for either film as a medium or the choose your own adventure novels it’s so indebted to.
The worst part about Bandersnatch is how plain predictable and cumbersome it becomes. For the first three choices, you are given minute control of the main character, Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead, in an adequately over the top Black Mirror performance), directing him in his daily routine. For me, these were actually the most exciting moments, the small choices made me feel less like an audience member awaiting an outcome and more like a director, making decisions on the fly. Choosing the music was especially fun, I felt in charge of the tone, the characters personality and ultimately the way the story was going to go. As the narrative progresses the writers slowly deemphasize your choices, regulating them only to large game-changing decisions. These felt strangely less important because my impact, my desire for the direction of the story never came through. If you have seen Black Mirror before then you have a pretty solid idea of what to expect from this film in terms of its outcome. Young programmer decides to make a game based on a choose your own adventure novel his dead mom gave to him, and also it’s a choose your own adventure story. The meta commentary doesn’t just seep into the plot, it is the plot and perhaps that’s this films greatest weakness.
It’s really a flimsy piece of work, about as cheap as the choose your own adventure novels it fashions itself after. Bandersnatch becomes a victim of the same trappings of Haneke’s Funny Games, in an effort to skewer genre films, they too succumb to their habit for manipulation and disconnection. Stefan is a vehicle for the audience to inflict pain on which is the point, it may even be claiming that’s what Black Mirror has been all along. Isn’t that what critics have been saying for years? In this way Bandersnatch feels like both an acknowledgment and extrapolation of the shows flaws. Just because one is aware of their faults does not mean they have fixed them.
The one shining star in this whole ordeal is the multiple endings, the possibilities and freedom this approach offers to the creators allow some of their goofiest material to drip through. The “Netflix” ending in particular had me howling. I wish they’d allow themselves to enter this territory more, the show can feel so oppressively bleak, that the humours, ironic finales offered in Bandersnatch finds the concept growing into Serling’s shoes left behind when Twilight Zone left the air more than sixty years ago. We will always remember the Hitchhiker, the Gremlin on the wing, the Nazi visiting the concentration camp he worked at all those years ago… but we will equally remember the fry cook revealing his third eye, or the man subverted at every wish by his genie. For every shock in Serling’s anthology series there was also a good hearty laugh, something the Black Mirror creator’s would do well to keep in mind moving forward.
Should you try this little experiment out? Absolutely. Sure, it’s annoying, overbearing, and obsessed with it’s own internal logic but for the first time in the existence of Black Mirror, it not only did something original for the series but wholly original all together. This film will not change the way we view media, it does not reshape the limits of streaming as some have claimed. If anything the largest innovation it will yield is in the show itself, perhaps the showrunners will become more comfortable with tonal changes. They can ditch the glossy, clinical approach they’ve taken to very real, pressing, urgent fears held by our generation and meet them with a smile rather than helplessness.