Log in to Netflix and fire up Twitter for your response because the folks across the pond are back again with another edition of the sci-fi anthology phenomenon, Black Mirror! Rather than an episode though, Black Mirror’s newest project comes in the form of a choose your own adventure movie called Bandersnatch that gives viewers the chance to choose between different paths at various points throughout the story. It’s a cool idea on paper, but I don’t know man. Ultimately I felt like it was far more gimmicky than it was actually enjoyable. The main idea of Bandersnatch is what holds it back the most and prevents it from being as deep or interesting as many of the other episodes in the series.
Black Mirror is one of the most unique shows on television right now. It’s often compared to The Twilight Zone for its anthology elements and uses of storytelling to portray contemporary issues. If I had one big criticism of the series, it’s that almost every episode boils down to “technology is bad.” The ways that this message is portrayed vary drastically from episode to episode, but the message is mostly the same. When I’m feeling more cynical I sometimes wonder if Black Mirror is actually that deep at all, but then I ultimately decide that even if it’s not, the series is so well-conceived and produced that the complaint isn’t even that valid if it were true. One thing I personally love about the series is how everyone has their own choices for which episodes are the best, and there’s really no reason for anyone to be more correct than anyone else. My personal favorite is Fifteen Million Merits. Its world is wonderfully terrifying underneath its colorful screen-filled future, and the ending is so frustratingly unsatisfying and ironic. But I don’t necessarily think it’s objectively the best episode. I really don’t know if there is definitely a Black Mirror that’s better than the rest (apart from The Waldo Moment, which is definitely not the best don’t even try to argue for it).
All of this is to say that when I say that I really only felt “meh” about Bandersnatch, I honestly have no idea how valid that is. Judging by public reaction online, there are people who seem to really enjoy it or at the very least feel dedicated to mapping out the various pathways the movie can take and uncovering every ending and storyline possible. But at the same time, most of what people are talking about goes back to Bandersnatch’s interactivity rather than its actual story, and I think that’s very telling of the quality of the movie as a whole. Its concept is far more intriguing than its final product.
So what is the final product? Set in 1984 (hehe get it?), Bandersnatch follows an aspiring video game developer named Stefan who is in the process of writing Bandersnatch, an adaptation of a book of the same name. It’s an ambitious game because for it to succeed it relies on branching paths (get it? like the show? so clever!), a concept difficult with the limited technology of the time. As the story goes on, it is revealed that the writer of the original Bandersnatch book murdered his wife after seemingly going insane from writing the book, and it seems that a similar fate is going to follow Stefan. Paths explore mental health, the concept of a sort of Big Brother-like figure, and even breaking the fourth wall, as Stefan realizes an external figure is controlling his actions.
One of the biggest issues I have with the movie is that if the interactivity is taken away, Bandersnatch is actually really pretty simple. That’s not to say that Black Mirror has never been simple before. One of the, if not THE, most highly regarded episodes in the series is The National Anthem, a very simple episode in which the English Prime Minister has to perform sexual acts on a pig on live television in order to save a princess from a terrorist. It’s simple, tense, and terrifying. And yet, despite being simple it has a lot to say about society’s addiction to media and how people have become desensitized to disturbing content. Bandersnatch on the other hand is simple, but it doesn’t really have much to say. You could spend hours combing through its endings, but there’s never anything that productive being said. Technology is bad, there may be someone somewhere controlling our actions, and that’s it.
It becomes especially frustrating because the options given were never particularly satisfying, and often it felt like they didn’t have enough weight in the general story. For example, the first big choice you get to make is regarding how Stefan will go about working on his game. He could either work in the office of a game studio, which will provide him with resources to finish Bandersnatch but on a strict deadline, or he could continue to work on it from his bedroom. Rather than opening up the possibility for two completely different stories, the first option signals an immediate end to the story. Bandersnatch is released, but it’s an unplayable mess, and viewers are sent back to the option back at the game studio. Out of curiosity I picked to work in the office again in the slight chance that the movie would reward messing around with it, but no, it gave the same ending and booted me back to the office. Most of the choices in the movie boil down to this. If you want to break off from the path the movie wants you to travel down, the results will be unsatisfied and you’ll get sent back down the preferred path. For example, Stefan goes to his therapist, who asks him to talk about his mother. If you answer no, the story will briefly continue only for another unsatisfying ending to occur. It’s then only possible to go deeper into the story by talking about the mother. The element of choice is in Bandersnatch, but not really.
“Psh, you foolish pleb,” you might already be typing. “That’s the point of the episode! Choice is an illusion! Nothing will ever be as satisfying as you want it to be! The choices you have in life are tragically limited, and Bandersnatch represents that perfectly!”
Don’t worry, I’ve already thought of that and disregarded it as pretentious and wrong. Bandersnatch brought out some of my more cynical views on Black Mirror because I really don’t think it’s that deep. I don’t think its lack of impactful choices represent the lack of choices we have in life. I think it represents the lack of resources they had to make a movie with endless possibilities. And it’s silly to believe that all roads truly lead to “kill dad,” as Bandersnatch might lead you to believe. I really do think that they had a good idea for a concept, but relied so heavily on said concept that the actual content they made was just mediocre.
There was one moment that built my hopes that this episode would turn into something great, but like all choices in the movie, it led to quick endings that sent the viewer back to a previous scene. Rather than choosing to see a doctor at one point in the story, viewers can send Stefan to to Colin’s apartment. Colin is another video game developer, and he and Stefan take hallucinogens together. Colin uses the experience to tell Stefan that their lives are being controlled by someone else and that their own choices are meaningless. The scene ends with the choice to throw either Stefan or Colin over the apartment’s balcony to his death. I hoped this would lead to some deeper layers of a Black Mirror acid trip, but that didn’t happen. If Stefan goes over, Bandersnatch gets released posthumously and the movie ends. If Colin goes over, Stefan sees a monster and the movie ends. Moments that could be interesting turns in the story, but they just never pan out like they should, and the experience Bandersnatch wants you to have instead is far less interesting.
I’m glad I watched Bandersnatch because it really was one of the most original concepts for a show I’ve ever seen, but this was done at the expense of coming off as gimmicky and ultimately a lesser Black Mirror experience. People have found enjoyment out of Bandersnatch, but I don’t think I’ll ever have a desire to watch it again. I’ve seen all the endings that I know of and was occasionally entertained. If someone finds a secret ending or path that makes Bandersnatch more interesting, my opinion might change, but for now, it really was just meh. It serves as a lesson that not all good ideas produce good products.
Or, in terms the movie would understand, 2.5 stars out of 5. Kill Dad.