Review - Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018)
Title: Bandersnatch Genre: Interactive Media/Psych Thriller Director: Charlie Brooker Stars: Fionne Whitehead, Will Poulter, Alice Poulter
Aesthetic Distance: The gap between the viewer’s conscious reality and the fictional reality presented.
The Distancing Effect: The intentional violation of aesthetic distance — also known as “breaking the fourth wall”
I grew up watching The Twilight Zone, so when Black Mirror was first introduced to me, I instantly fell in love with Charlie Brooker, it’s creator. I admire every carefully constructed episode of Black Mirror; it’s forward thinking in a way that’s not preachy, and political in a way that’s genuine.
Bandersnatch was not the first to introduce interactive story-telling, it’s a craft that video games have been mastering for years. The difference here is that video games are not as available as a Netflix series. While not a video game player myself, I did sit and watch all 18 hours of cutscenes from Red Dead Redemption 2, along with some actual playtime.
Here’s what I noticed-- Video games introduce a strange dichotomy: The player makes decisions for the character that the character might not want to do. Presumably, the character is designed to have their own thoughts, feelings, and desires, which are intruded upon by the puppet-master player.
Bandersnatch tried to highlight this phenomenon of player-character-perplexity, but did so in a way that was awfully tacky. The decision to talk to the character by introducing yourself as a viewer on Netflix was a strange self-plug... and the wrong decision.
This is where Bandersnatch went so, so very wrong. Instead of having a few well-planned story paths that branched off into their own unique direction, Bandersnatch loops you back around to the previous decision or offers you an out to the credits. This eliminates the element of choice entirely, because several choices like ‘Netflix’, ‘Don’t Talk About Mom’, and ‘PAX’, will continuously take you back until you choose differently.
After a quick divergence of the “wrong” decision, you’re taken back to the main storyline, because there’s really only one storyline. I understand that having multiple paths would take years of filming, but what a beautiful, unique experience that could have been. And if budget really doesn’t allow for independent paths, they could have weighted all your decisions to take you to one of the few different endings (similar to RDR2). In this case, they would only have to film different endings to the story, actual endings, not a quick 4th-wall break that loops you back to the main story. Then, all your decisions would be taken into account to determine how the story ends for you.
The divide in appreciation for this film is clear. People who have never experienced interactive storytelling are enthralled by the new media, and people who have played video games with complex storylines are appalled that this is even being considered interactive storytelling.
Filmmakers are following video game creators by closing the gap on aesthetic distance. I’m disappointed that the first mainstream, easily accessible media to feature interactive storytelling immediately introduced the distancing effect. Making decisions for the characters and empathizing with them when they deal with the repercussions later is an incredible feat, but the 4th wall break of Bandersnatch takes this away from the general audience before they’re even familiar with it.
I would like to see interactive storytelling that has independent paths that focus on tough decisions, which bring consequences to a character whom you identify with.