'Black Mirror: Bandersnatch': Come for the fun, stay for the existential dread

CALIFORNIA, USA – Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is, if anything, exciting.

It’s new – Netflix’s first foray into interactive content for adults. And it was written by Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker, who is, arguably, an expert in weaving morally-compromising, truly disturbing tales of tech gone too far.

The fact that you get to make the moral compromises this time is, undoubtedly, part of the attraction of a choose-your-own-adventure Black Mirror installment.

The film is set in 1980s London, and follows Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), a young game programmer who hopes to create a choose-your-own-adventure game called Bandersnatch, based on a novel he had as a child.

Throughout the film, viewers get to make choices that range from the mundane (What cereal do you want to eat? What music do you want to play in the car?), to the downright twisted (we’ll let you discover that on your own).

The sheer fun that comes with interacting with the screen and dictating the story makes the film worth watching already.  

But once that wears off, one is left to contend with a bunch of philosophical questions revolving around the concept (the myth, maybe?) of free will, and of choice. 

“You’re just a puppet, you’re not in control,” one of the characters says at some point in at least one variation of the film.

At any rate, it’s a film that invites people to keep rewatching, in search of answers perhaps, or in pursuit of other endings, or simply as a futile attempt to fill that existential void. 

Of course, when viewers rewatch, it all ultimately serves Netflix, which has been scrambling – though in a very calculated, graceful way – to stay ahead of the game as competitors step up and other companies withdraw their syndicated content from the platform.

Netflix has been serving up original content like there’s no tomorrow, and, in the case of Bandersnatch, using their strength in tech to venture into uncharted storytelling territory. 

Leaning in

Interactive TV is that territory – and is Netflix’s effort in getting viewers to “lean in” instead of passively or distractedly watching a show or movie.

“We've learned to press play, drop the remote, and just like lean on back and let TV wash over us. I've seen two year olds do this where they press play, they drop the remote, and then they just like snuggle down into the couch…We had to do something different, be able to get them to lean in a little bit,” said Carla Engelbrecht, Netflix director of product innovation.

MENTOR. Will Poulter stars in 'Bandersnatch' as Colin, a programmer who mentors newbie Stefan. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

MENTOR. Will Poulter stars in 'Bandersnatch' as Colin, a programmer who mentors newbie Stefan. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

A “leaned in” audience calls to mind a vision of viewers hypnotized by their screens, enveloped in blue light, and pushing a button obsessively as they are prompted to make choices. 

It’s a Black Mirror-worthy scene if there ever was one, but Engelbrecht, who has led Netflix’s interactive content for years, has a vision of interactive TV that is much less tech-paranoid. 

Engelbrecht shared a story of watching viewers go play with Puss in Book, one of Netflix’s choose-your-own-adventures shows for kids. As she shared, the two kids, an 8- and 9- year old brother and sister, were having an impassioned debate on whether to make Puss kiss another character or shake her hand. 

“Their mom is there and cracking up because her kids are having this hilarious conversation around this moment in Puss in Book.  And so it created this conversation this delight that we couldn't necessarily capture in the metrics, but we think was really powerful,” she said.

Bandersnatch will undoubtedly fuel the same kind of human interaction (though most likely with a lot more swear words). After an advanced screening for members of the press, for instance, viewers found themselves speaking to each other more than we ever had that day, asking each other what kind of ending they got, and how they got there.

At the very least, it’s a tech innovation that won’t turn us all into heartless robots.

Story first 

Of course, the innovation is more than just a gimmick to change the way people watch movies.

As far as the Black Mirror team is concerned, the choose-your-own-adventure aspect is as central to the story as the characters. Many times, the choice points are used poetically, to stress a point.

For instance, at a certain point, viewers are made to repeat a decision, when they are given two of the same choice – driving home the idea that some choices cannot be undone. 

 If the format itself didn’t service the story, it wouldn’t have been written. 

GAME DEVELOPER. In 'Bandersnatch,' Fionn Whitehead plays a video game programmer who gets obssessed with perfecting an adventure game. Photo courtesy of Netflix

GAME DEVELOPER. In 'Bandersnatch,' Fionn Whitehead plays a video game programmer who gets obssessed with perfecting an adventure game.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

In fact, when Netflix initially pitched the idea of an interactive episode to Brooker and Black Mirror executive producer Annabel Jones, they were not sold on it.

“I think at that point we didn’t know what the story would be and we were like, ‘well, wouldn’t that just be a gimmick?’” Brooker told press at a media event in California.

“And then, annoyingly, several weeks later, we were discussing story ideas. We were just having a sort of ideas meeting, throwing ideas around and this idea popped up that would only work as an interactive and it was a moment where we went, ‘Oh, great. That’s exciting. That’s a story that would only work in this way,’” he shared. “Immediately, that translated into, ‘Oh, sh*t. Now we’ve got to do that and that’s probably going to be complicated.’”

Complicated may be an understatement for just how much work was put in to creating the film. Scripting it alone was such a task that Netflix had to create their own program for Brooker to be able to write it. 

Then of course there was the task of making sure the story was still somewhat cohesive, even as viewers go down different paths. 

According to Jones: “For me, that was the biggest stumbling block, was I just don’t know if I care enough to do it and you know it’s going to be a lot of work so you have to sort of care for your character and you have to want to tell that story. Otherwise, you’re just not going to do the film any justice. So, once we’d found out a way that, as Charlie was saying, it’s absolutely baked into the story, this idea of freedom of choice and control, and the illusion of control, and the illusion of choice, once you’ve got that as a basic conceit and you have a protagonist and you can give them multiple endings, but those endings only build to reinforce the whole, then that’s delicious." 

Brooker added: “It’s a tricky one because I mean when you’re writing any script, obviously your character is defined by what they’re doing, basically. And in this, you’re ceding control of what they’re doing to the viewer...And so, when you do have things where you’ve got complete sort of freedom, it’s interesting. It’s about what we’re limiting those choices to. It’s one of the trickiest challenges.”

He explained that unlike a video game where players can choose to do something completely out of character and random, Bandersnatch had to have some sort of consistency of character. 

“Giving lots of choices while keeping the character consistent was a huge nut to crack, and that was why this particular idea, which is sort of about the form that you’re experiencing it in, that’s why we were sort of excited to do it,” Brooker said. 

Indeed, because of the format of the film, even at its most confusing, most absurd, and most frustrating (and yes, the story becomes all of those things at some point or in some variation), Bandersnatch makes its point, and in the most entertaining way possible.

So, do you watch Bandersnatch to simply revel in the fun of the brand new technology that will no doubt throw the growing VoD industry in for a loop? Do you marvel at the sheer madness and genius of Brooker’s storytelling?

Do you indulge the Black Mirror fan in you and keep rewatching Bandersnatch in a race to get to as many possible endings as you can? Do you dive headfirst into an existential crisis by waxing philosophical about the illusion of choice? Do you obsess over the fact that at some point in the story, you felt like you were forced to choose a certain fact?

Do you decry Netflix, and the Black Mirror showrunners for luring you into the idea that you had a choice, when they had been controlling the narrative all along? 

Ultimately, it is all up to you.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is now available on Netflix. – Rappler.com

 

Editor's note: The writer was part of a press event for Black Mirror: Bandersnatch sponsored by Netflix 

Amanda T. Lago

After avoiding long-term jobs in favor of travelling the world, Amanda finally learned to commit when she joined Rappler in July 2017. As a lifestyle and entertainment reporter, she writes about music, culture, and the occasional showbiz drama. She also hosts Rappler Live Jam, where she sometimes tries her best not to fan-girl on camera.

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