The latest entry in the long running anthology series Black Mirror begins on a different note to earlier entries in the show. It asks questions decidedly less profound than we’re used to: should our protagonist have Frosties or Sugar Puffs for breakfast? What music should he listen to for the bus ride? Should he fight his sword wielding therapist or escape by leaping out the window instead? You know, typical day to day stuff.
Bandersnatch, Charlie Brooker’s latest effort for the series, is the most ambitious episode to date, if one can even call it an episode. It’s an interactive film, taking the viewer back to 80s and 90s Choose Your Own Adventure books, then turning back time over and over again if the viewer makes a bad decision.
Bandersnatch boasts roughly 150 minutes of unique footage divided into different pathways. Audiences control the life of the protagonist, an aspiring computer game programmer named Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead). Stefan’s life is in your hands: the viewer is regularly asked to choose between a set of options whenever he needs to make a decision, which includes everything from day-to-day chores to matters of life and death.
As a result, Bandersnatch has multitude of different endings based on the path the viewer chooses. For me, uncovering every single ending (at least, the ones we know of) took a little under three hours of getting caught in a few loops and growing too attached to the human life I was suddenly responsible for. After seeing all of Bandersnatch’s possibilities for myself, I’ll go ahead and warn you now: if you’re hoping to give Stefan a happy ending, you’re not going to manage it. Then again, this is Black Mirror: I can’t imagine you needed me to tell you that.
Set in 1984, Bandersnatch follows Stefan’s attempts to adapt a choose your own adventure book (titled, you guessed it, “Bandersnatch”) into a video game. As well as software bugs that plague his would-be magnum opus, Stefan is also struggling with increasing hostility from his father and is working through the death of his mother in therapy. As the viewer makes more and more choices for Stefan, however, none of that seems important to him anymore — no matter your choices he eventually spirals, believing that some sort of outside force (depending on your path, he may suspect an “entertainment platform from the 21st century”) is controlling his every move.
The multiple realities of Stefan’s life range from magical realism to just plain depressing Black Mirror realism, some ending in more satisfying ways than others that end abruptly, each laced with meta-commentary. A particularly great touch are the few instances where characters reveal an awareness that Stefan is stuck in a time loop, reliving the same events as the viewer goes back for new endings.
In the grand scheme of Black Mirror episodes, Bandersnatch’s questions of free will and control fit right in, but the overall narrative seems barren next to the series’ very best. Many aspects of the storyline piqued my interest and felt worthy of expansion, such as Will Poulter’s enigmatic character and Stefan’s relationship with his father, yet wound up lost in the exploration Stefan’s labyrinthine existence. Chasing down every last detail is an important aspect of Bandersnatch’s appeal but in the end, I’d immediately sacrifice all but one of the endings if it meant more time with Will Poulter. If occasionally getting caught in a loop of fishing for a new ending isn’t frustrating, the underdeveloped elements of the story will be, especially as you’ll be revisiting them without ever finding out anything new.
Maybe it’s because I’m fond of Black Mirror overall, or maybe it’s because I just spent far too much time attempting to determine what’s best for a fictional character, but to me, these faults don’t take away from Bandersnatch as much as you might expect. This is a major innovation of the way that we consume mainstream film and television; the interactive component creates a gripping experience and full immerses you into the main character’s life. It is well worth the hours you’ll waste in vain attempts to get Stefan’s life on track. Whether you end up enthralled or frustrated, it’ll be interesting to see what Bandersnatch paves the way for.