Review: Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018)
Title: Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
Director: David Slade
Stars: Fionn Whitehead, Will Poulter, Alice Lowe
Bias: I love Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novels
In a Nutshell: The year is 1984, and Stefan Butler is an aspiring video game designer. His obsession is adapting an epic Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel called Bandersnatch, and he’s on the verge of having his dream come true – if YOU can make the right choices to get him there.
The Critique: Bandersnatch is difficult to review for one simple reason – by design everyone’s viewing experience is going to be different, even if we all can eventually experience the same parts of the narrative. Still, despite that challenge, I think there are broad positives and negatives. Unfortunately, there’s about the same amount of each.
Black Mirror, the series, takes a largely dystopic view toward our engagement with technology, and the impact it can have on society. As a result, many of the stories the series tell end in some very dark places. I mean, seriously dark. That is equally true of many of the endings for this feature-length story (though there is apparently at least one possible happy ending, which I never managed to reach). Where this works for the story and the experience is that it made me feel increasingly complicit in the outcomes because it was my series of choices which, to a degree, led there. There is another level of engagement, however, due, in part, to the limited range of choices available, and the meta-awareness that may grow within the protagonist that his decisions might not be his own. I found myself empathizing even more with Stefan as I grew aware, and grew frustrated, with finding things spiraling out of control and no choices offered that could curtail it.
That’s also where some of the problems come in. If you’ve ever played a video game with a choice-based moral system (it’s probably called something fancier than that, but I’m not really a gamer) then you’re quickly able to anticipate where certain choices will lead, and how limiting a simple binary option is. And, along with that, there’s the technical limitation of space being provided within the story to, presumably, give the illusion of seamless-ness. The way it’s executed, however, results in the types of pauses you find in sitcoms with laugh-tracks, where there’s space after every punchline for the expected laughter.
And, additionally, the story just isn’t as effectively told as it could be, regardless. We never quite have enough information to be able to connect with the protagonist, and the objectives – completing the game by the deadline and not going insane – feel perfunctory and unobtainable, respectively. To be fair, though, the movie is well-directed by David Slade (who made the amazing film Hard Candy, and directed episodes of Breaking Bad and American Gods), and the performances by Whitehead and especially Poulter are very strong throughout. In the end it feels like a middling episode of Black Mirror, a not-particularly-good gaming experience, but an intriguing enough experience to check out if you’ve got the time and a Netflix subscription.
Shout-Out: I legitimately want to read the fictional Bandersnatch novel, as it sounds pretty awesome.
To Go, to Rent, or to Netflix:
The choice is up to YOU…