It’s hard to know how to classify Bandersnatch, the latest… episode?… of Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s series about the many ways technology can make our lives a misery. It’s not really a TV show or movie. It’s sort of a video game. It’s a book without any pages. It’s a really good way to give yourself a migraine trying to get your head around what exactly is happening.
To describe it in the most basic terms, Bandersnatch is a ‘choose your own adventure’. Popular in the ’80s, these books asked you to make a choice at the end of each chapter. Let’s say, for example, ‘Do you want to fight the monster or run away?’ Each answer would direct you to a different page in the book, which would lead you either on further adventure or, more often, to a grisly death. You controlled the outcome of the story, within limited parameters. Bandersnatch does the same thing, frequently showing two options on screen, which you select using your remote. These start as banally as choosing whether to have Sugar Puffs or Frosties for breakfast, but get ever more bleak, one path leading you to the no-good-outcome question of whether to bury a body or chop it up.
The person we’re directing is Stefan (Fionn Whitehead). In 1984, Stefan is an awkward, clever teenager who is programming his own ‘choose your own’ video game adventure, Bandersnatch. Stefan has a poor relationship with his dad, due to the death of his mother, and programming is his escape into a world he can control. What Bandersnatch does very cleverly is play with the ‘choose your own adventure’ possibilities in ways that gradually lead you somewhere nightmarish. It doesn’t throw you in too quickly. Where the gimmick is initially fun – you get to choose what soundtrack Stefan should listen to – it gently starts to give you harder and harder choices, until there comes a point you don’t want to pick either of the options, but you’re compelled to. Controlling Stefan becomes a horrible obligation, not an amusing game.
It’s very well directed by David Slade, who works up a strong feeling of claustrophobia and dread, while still keeping it very grounded and real. It looks like a kitchen sink drama that a fantasy horror keeps leaking into. Whitehead, who led the cast of Dunkirk, is superb, sympathetic and vulnerable even as his actions get madder (the viewer’s fault). Will Poulter is charismatically creepy as Colin, a video game programmer who knows some of the answers Stefan needs.
Where it’s very successful at making you think about the oddness of what you’re doing, it’s not so successful as a story. Like a lot of Black Mirror episodes it has a brilliant conceit but doesn’t have an answer smart enough to match its question, tailing off into vagary. When choices lead you to an immediate dead end, it will give you the option to go back and try again, without having to start over, but this happens less and less as you get further into the story. After a couple of tries, I would reach the end credits but still feel I’d missed a proper ending to the story by picking the ‘wrong’ paths. Going through an hour or so of the same stuff just to try and get a bit further becomes quickly unappealing. It leaves you with a frustrating feeling of having only half lived the adventure and certainly not the feeling that you’ve experienced a whole story.
Whatever Bandersnatch is, it’s really unlike any other form of storytelling anywhere else, and for that it deserves celebration. Is it a new way of filmmaking that would work for other stories? Probably not. It’s a fun gimmick. The path Bandersnatch goes down is interesting, but not a path you might choose to follow more than once.