Interactive movies have always seemed to be more suitable for the video game world. After all, when game developers talk about the numbers of choices and how there are long lasting consequences, gamers start to salivate. Ironically, when games like Detroit: Becoming Human are released, many scoff at them and decry them for not being “real” video games. “What’s the fun in playing a game that is just a movie where you make choices?” is the common indictment. It is clear that in gaming, interactive movies have a niche fan base. But what if a different medium attempted it?
It was originally rumored that the fifth season of Black Mirror would debut at the end of 2018. It soon became apparent that instead of the fifth season, a Black Mirror movie would premiere on Netflix. Even better, the movie was set to be an interactive experience for anyone who watched. Whereas video games require more involvement, movies are for audiences to sit back and enjoy. Offering any sort of interaction is a novel idea that if done correctly can change the way people watch television. It only makes sense that a science fiction show centered around technology would be the one to attempt the experiment. But is Bandersnatch worth the time and effort?
(This is based on one viewing of Bandersnatch. There are multiple endings.)
The story takes place in 1984. Stefan is a young man who is developing a video game based around his favorite Choose Your Own Adventure book, Bandersnatch. As the movie progresses, Stefan becomes more obsessed with finishing his game. Reality and time become distorted as Stefan tries to figure who what is and is not truly happening.
Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk) does an excellent job as Stefan. Almost immediately, the audience sees that Stefan is a troubled character. From how obviously he covets his CYOA book, to the odd glances he gives his father, there are subtle clues given. Even as the action picks up and the story becomes more confusing, Stefan looks just as bewildered. There are no over the top moments (unless you make certain choices). This is a nice bit of character development. The character progresses with the story instead of remaining the same person the entire way through.
Will Poulter also does a great job as popular game developer Colin Ritman. Unlike Stefan, Ritman changes little with over the course of Bandersnatch. However, this is not necessary since he is basically a one note character. He is a superstar creator of games that is prone to flights of fancy that include disappearing for long stretches of time. He has a smug know it all attitude. He never comes off as antagonist or evil, and even seems to want to help Stefan through the troubles of game development. Despite changing little, Ritman is a complex character that Poulter plays perfectly.
Of course, the big selling point behind Bandersnatch is the fact the viewer is able to choose where the story goes and how it ends. Netflix has done this in some of its children’s programming however, this is the first time it has tried interactive programming with shows that require deeper decisions. It would be understandable for the show to have glitches and few choices that have little, if any, long lasting impact.
Surprisingly, Bandersnatch plays out with very few issues. Like any good CYOA, there are many choices. Some are irrelevant, others require some thought, and there are ones whose consequences are not seen until much later. It is a perfect mix of fun and interaction. Choices are spaced out perfectly to where they never seem intrusive. It also never seems like the bare minimum was done to label the movie “interactive”. Most tellingly, Bandersnatch will make you wonder “what if?” The best CYOAs are the ones that have you questioning every decision you make and wanting you to go back and see what would have happened if you veered left instead of strolling right.
The movie’s writing plays into its interactive nature. Much like Bioshock did to gamers, Bandersnatch has its lead character asking who is in control. There are some great moments early in the film where the Stefan seems to question his own decisions. It is almost as if he is fighting against the decisions you are making. There is also a self aware series of choices that will have people talking to themselves before making them laugh out loud.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is one of the most unique and well written viewing experiences of the year. While the interactive movie tag is being marketed as the hook, the story itself fits perfectly in the Black Mirror catalog of dystopian science fiction. The novelty will attract those who would not normally watch the show, but the plot will convert many to fans who come back for more. If only it had said The End.