Electric Retrospective- Review: “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” reflects poorly upon interactive media

Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) struggles to determine if he controls his destiny. Image from Netflix

Since 1967’s “Kinoautomat,” a movie based on audience choices, filmmakers have attempted to make interactive films mainstream, yet little has come of this. “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” shows that basic mistakes are holding back this advancement.

“Bandersnatch” depicts the year 1984, when solo game developer Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) adapts the titular choose-your-own-adventure novel into an adventure game. The book’s author, Jerome T. Davies (Jeff Minter), is infamous for having a mental breakdown and believing his choices were controlled by a higher being, and Stefan parallels Davies in that he slowly loses his grip on reality, quickly coming to dangerous decisions he doesn’t think he made alone.

Stefan’s assumption is correct, as the gimmick behind “Bandersnatch” is choosing paths. At certain intervals, viewers are prompted to pick one of two options to progress the story, much like the choose-your-own-adventure book Stefan adapts, though inaction leads to a default choice. There are roughly five major endings that lead to credits and several minor endings that don’t, and viewers can return to earlier points to see other endings.

This isn’t Netflix’s first interactive media; that distinction goes to “Puss in Boots: Trapped in an Epic Tale.” In fact, before Telltale Games closed, the adventure game company cancelled significant projects to finish an interactive series for Netflix based on “Minecraft: Story Mode.” What sets “Bandersnatch” apart from other Netflix interactive programs is that it’s a mature feature-length film, as previous offerings were short episodes of child-oriented Netflix exclusive shows.

Stefan’s descent portrays an interesting perspective on how evildoers justify their actions: upon surrendering to his puppeteer for advice, he believes his lack of control makes him innocent when committing atrocities. However, Stefan and the majority of the cast lack personality in their performances. The only interesting character is anarchist game designer Colin Ritman (Will Poulter), whose deadpan humor and bizarre knowledge of the multiverse steal every scene he’s in.

Outside of Colin, the writing continually shifts between entertaining metahumor and lines without any nuance. The lack of subtlety is most prominent if viewers let the film choose default paths only, which leads to a game reviewer stating that the story’s creator was on “autopilot.” In contrast, further default choices lead to a metahumor-focused ending that’s the film’s best moment, even if it’s tonally inconsistent with the other endings.

Speaking of the other endings, the major endings each turn “Bandersnatch” into drastically different movies. While all endings leave Stefan in situations of varying awfulness, they can change the film into a convoluted time travel plot, a madman’s descent into sociopathy, or a slow buildup to a comedic twist. It feels like each ending had writers with different visions, and none of them connect in the story’s overall progression.

Each ending fails to properly conclude at least one major plot point or theme, and even after viewing all endings, the majority of the film’s lore is left unexplored. While this works for Colin’s character, as his performance revolves around his inexplicable knowledge of the choice and rewind mechanics, barely any screen time is given to Davies, the book or its game adaptation, despite being the cause of Stefan’s fall.

Replaying for all endings requires immense patience. The film doesn’t clarify which choices have the most impact, so it often sends viewers farther back than necessary, and without a guide, it’s unclear how much of the film has been seen. Fast-forward and rewind features only function within the current scene, and since there’s no scene selection, skipping scenes is impossible.

Although the show’s social commentary became increasingly inept in later seasons, “Black Mirror” typically revolves around the benefits and dangers of technological advancement, but “Bandersnatch” neither comments on games nor game development. Instead, the film shows that any individual who adapts Davies’s story will be driven insane. Not only is this uncharacteristic of “Black Mirror,” it sounds more like a cheesy campfire horror story than thoughtful commentary on technology.

Furthermore, by stating Davies’s story is responsible for Stefan’s mental state, “Bandersnatch” ignores an excellent chance to comment on stressful working conditions in the game industry, like those experienced at the aforementioned Telltale Games. The story begins with a solo developer who has to finish a game within a short deadline and feels pressured by harsh reviews, yet this has little effect on Stefan’s downward spiral.

“Bandersnatch” acts as though its acknowledgement of viewers’ actions is original, but these mechanics, especially compared to numerous games that explore how players’ choices impact the story, is nothing new. Even the film’s most interesting character, Colin, feels like a lesser version of “Undertale” boss and meme icon Sans, with a mix of comic relief and knowledge of the viewer’s actions, even those from alternate timelines.

While “Bandersnatch” isn’t Netflix’s first interactive film, it likely isn’t the last, and Netflix has a perfect opportunity for its next project. The first two seasons of the fantastic “Castlevania” animated series are based on “Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse,” which introduced branching paths and additional characters, so a retelling featuring optional paths and the missing playable character, Grant, would play to the strengths of “Bandersnatch” without its glaring narrative weaknesses.

“Bandersnatch” is certainly a worthwhile experience, but it’s best enjoyed as a mindless game with friends or as a B-tier “Black Mirror” episode rather than an engaging film. This was an admirable attempt to further the evolution of interactive cinema, but points for effort only go so far. For those seeking a well-told story, an original concept, good acting or a user-friendly experience, “Bandersnatch” is the wrong choice.

“Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” is available on Netflix. The film is rated TV-MA for explicit drug use, gore, profanity and intense scenes, and has a variable running time, with a minimum of 40 minutes for the shortest ending and a maximum of two hours and 30 minutes when viewing all possible endings.

Visit the Electric Retrospective blog at https://electricretrospective.wordpress.com/ for gaming news, reviews, and editorials. New articles release every Tuesday.

Sean Mullins – Technology Columnist

This is Sean’s third year on the ECHO, having contributed to the site during journalism class in his sophomore year and becoming a columnist and blogger in his junior year. Sean writes Electric Retrospective, a column dedicated to gaming editorials and reviews, as well as a blog also titled Electric Retrospective that posts news stories and reviews every Tuesday.

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