Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, Review – The intoxicating illusion of control

Written by Charlie Brooker and directed by David Slade, Bandersnatch is the first feature-length entry into Brooker’s anthology series Black Mirror, and the first interactive film of any real substance to be produced and released by Netflix. Our protagonist is Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead), a young computer game programmer obsessed with coding a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ game based on the fictional book Bandersnatch. The longer Stefan works on the game (and the more narrative strands he attempts to knit together), the less control he seems to have over himself, and the looser his grip on reality becomes. At various points throughout the film, the viewer is allowed to influence the narrative by selecting one of two options, ranging from the banal (which cereal to eat for breakfast) to the more serious (whether a character lives or dies). Depending on the viewer’s decisions, the film can last 150 minutes, or a mere 40.

Fionn Whitehead in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch | Photo by Stuart Hendry © Netflix
Fionn Whitehead in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch | Photo by Stuart Hendry © Netflix

Brooker was initially reluctant to create an ‘interactive film’, but he decided to take on the project when he found a suitable trunk from which various narrative branches could sprout. The decision to centre the film on the creation of a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ game while incorporating the choices of the audience is nothing short of a masterstroke. It has allowed for an incredibly meta take on technology and entertainment, as well as invoking ideas of fate and free will. The result is a film of great philosophical and psychological sophistication, but one in which the value of entertainment is never forgotten. The fact that the film is interactive immediately creates a bond between the viewer and Butler, our sympathy for and interest in him piqued from the off, and Brooker’s ability to write a darkly humorous screenplay is without equal.

That said, many believe that the story is a subpar entry into the Black Mirror canon. But the question must be asked: to what extent can this be considered a ‘story’? There is no single, linear narrative in the film, but rather countless paths down which we can fall. The story can certainly be very disjointed, viewers confronted with sudden dead ends and compelled to return to an earlier point in the film, but who is to say this is not entirely the point? Granting that each viewer’s choices are different, there are scenes we are forced to experience again and again, evoking in us the same sense of powerlessness that arises in Butler during the creation of his game. We are led to believe that we are transcendent, pulling at the strings and playing at God, but we are at the mercy of Charlie Brooker as much as Butler is to us. We are beguiled by our power, until we realise that we are being manipulated and defrauded and laughed at as much as Butler is by us. It is as strong a comment on modern technology as anything in Black Mirror, and indeed there is no moment in the series quite as heart-stopping as when Butler notices his lack of control and resists the decision of the viewer. We are not a distant God but a character in the film, and it may even be that we are weaker than Butler, continuing to watch instead of resisting that urge.

Fionn Whitehead in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
Fionn Whitehead in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch | Photo by Stuart Hendry © Netflix

There is much else to like here. The performance from Whitehead is constantly engaging, and Will Poulter’s appearances as programmer Colin Ritman are fantastic, particularly when he delivers a rousing monologue at the end of one narrative path. The visuals are often very striking, especially during scenes involving hallucinations, and the music is perfectly chosen, featuring 80s hits from groups like Kajagoogoo and Tangerine Dream. There will doubtless be detractors of Bandersnatch, but the crucial thing to take away from the film is that you get out from it what you put in. If you decide, like many Black Mirror fans, to flick through the film exploring every possible path, you may find yourself joining Stefan in his madness, entangling yourself in its sprawling web of possibilities and impossibilities, and the limitations of your influence in the world. Bandersnatch is an interactive film that controls the audience, and for that reason alone it is worth your time.