Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is a new kind of experiment from Netflix. It’s billed as the company’s first real foray into adult-oriented “interactive films” — Choose Your Own Adventure-style programming that ask viewers to decide what will happen next. With choices popping up at the bottom of the screen that allow the viewer to decide what the main character will do next, Bandersnatch is caught somewhere between a video game and a movie without ever committing to one direction.
The film, set in 1984, follows Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead), a 19-year-old computer programmer who’s obsessed with adapting his favorite book into a video game. That book is a Choose Your Own Adventure-style adventure novel he found among his late mother’s possessions called Bandersnatch, and Stefan wants his game to feature just as many choices as the novel it’s based on.
Thanks to a brief but impressive demo of his game, Stefan is hired by a video game publisher called Tuckersoft. There Stefan meets his idol, game developer Colin Ritman (Will Poulter), who first begins to hint at the strangeness of the movie’s reality. As Stefan becomes more obsessed with his game and the nature its choices, the movie’s Black Mirror roots come to the fore, and he begins to question his own free will and whether the choices he’s making are really his own.
On its face, the idea of a boy who blames himself for his mother’s death becoming dangerously obsessed with Choose Your Own Adventure-style stories is interesting to explore. The problem is Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is really only interested in this premise as a bridge toward its ultimate destination: becoming meta commentary on itself and video games as a medium.
As Stefan becomes increasingly suspicious of his reality and realize that someone else is in control of his actions (note: it’s you, you’re the someone else), Bandersnatch abandons all concept of narrative. Probably not coincidentally, this is also when your decisions actually start to have a real impact on what happens in the story. It’s also where the seams that hold Bandersnatch together start to become very noticeable.
Everything about Bandersnatch, it seems, is done in service of its concept which steadily crushes the life out of what could have been an interesting movie. Bandersnatch’s scenes are often well executed — especially in its first half — but the constant interruption as you’re asked to make choices leads to a staccato pacing that prevents anyone involved from finding a real rhythm in each scene. At best, its characters are paper thin and barely interesting, and at worst they’re going on drug-fueled rants about Pac-Man being a metaphor for social control (yes, really).
No one is faced with more of the concept’s burden than Fionn Whitehead. With almost every choice that I hoped would bring Stefan even a hint of definable character traits or personality, Bandersnatch remained obstinate, sending me back to the last choice I made and not-so-subtly asking me to do better next time. When I would reach that same choice again, I would choose the more boring catch-all option and be rewarded with progress. This leaves Whitehead with almost nothing to do in the movie except be a blank slate of confused terror, a task which he performs admirably, all things considered.
As the movie begins to suggest that Stefan only has the illusion of choice in his own life, it’s hard not to turn that concept on the movie itself. Controlling a character whose primary problem is their lack of freewill, all while playing within Bandersnatch’s carefully curated rules, feels less like commentary on video games and more like a devastating self-own. When Bandersnatch kicks me back a few minutes every time I make a decision that strays from the predetermined path, it doesn’t make me realize that I’m really Stefan, it just makes me realize that I’m really frustrated.
As the movie’s second half ramps up and flies completely off the rails, it becomes clear just how little your choices mattered earlier on, a common pitfall in choice-based narrative. The story is less like a tree full of branching paths and more like a cleverly disguised straight line with three or four distinctive forks that affect which of the endings you get.
While it’s disappointing that choice matters so little — especially when it interrupts so often — the few choices that do matter, and their results, make Bandersnatch worth watching at least once. In these few scenes — probably five or six, though you’ll only get to see one or two at a time — we get brief glimpses of the more fun and interesting movies we could have gotten if Bandersnatch weren’t so obsessed with its inconclusive commentary on freewill.
These scenes temporarily transform the movie into a government conspiracy thriller, a time-travel drama, a serial-killer comedy or an action movie. It’s easy to imagine some alternate reality where the choices of Bandersnatch were made differently. In this universe, these scenes would happen 20 or 30 minutes into the movie as a result of the compounded choices you’ve made, suddenly transforming it into an off-the-wall genre film. In the version of Bandersnatch that we have, these few genuinely fun scenes come in only near the end and last just minutes at a time, then disappear as you are suddenly thrown into whatever ending you’ve gotten.
The movie’s creators seem well aware that these scenes are the movie’s most interesting moments and, as soon as you reach one ending, it immediately prompts you to either watch the credits, or return to one of the few meaningful decisions so you can be guided toward an ending you haven’t seen yet. It’s fun watching the movie’s strangest scenes play out divorced from the context of the rest of the story.
If what we’re supposed to take away from Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is whether or not Netflix’s interactive film’s can work, the answer is: probably. Bandersnatch has plenty of fun moments and if the construction weren’t so painfully apparent it might even be exciting to guide a story and its characters along. In the end, though, the Black Mirror nature of the movie, with its vague questions about the nature of reality and accidentally pointing at its own problems, hold Bandersnatch back from the much more enjoyable film that got lost somewhere in a maze of meaningless choices.