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Josh Reviews Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

January 16th, 2019
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I adored “Choose Your Own Adventure” books as a kid.  I was totally hooked on them, reading them over and over.  In this seemingly endless series (many of which were written by R. A. Montgomery), every few pages you, the reader, would be presented with a choice as to what the main character (you) should do, and then you’d be directed to the page to turn to based on which choice you made.  As a result, there were many different ways the stories could play out.  Many of the endings resulted in the main character meeting an unfortunate end.  But perhaps, if you kept trying, you’d find a way to survive and make it through to a happy ending.

I’d never have dreamed that such a thing could be possible, but somehow, Black Mirror has found a way to replicate the feel of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book as a TV show, with the special, feature-length episode “Bandersnatch.”

Black Mirror is, of course, the spectacular anthology series created and run by Charlie Brooker.  It’s a modern-day Twilight Zone, with a focus on stories that explore how technology unchained can lead to tragic results.  (Click here for my review of the two original British seasons, and click here for my review of Netflix’s third season.  I actually still haven’t finished watching the fourth Netflix season, which was released about a year ago — life has gotten in the way!! — but when “Bandersnatch” came out, I jumped into watching it right away.)

“Bandersnatch” was written by Charlie Brooker and directed by David Slade.  Set in 1984, “Bandersnatch” tells the story of a young man named Stefan (Fionn Whitehead, who was the lead in Dunkirk), who is working on his own to create a Choose Your Own Adventure style computer game, based on a book he loved called Bandersnatch.  He brings the idea to a computer game company called Tuckersoft, where he meets the head of the company Mohan Thakur (Asim Chaudhry) as well as his idol, the famous video-game creator Colin (Will Poulter, from Son of Rambow, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The Revenant). 

Incredibly, this entire special Black Mirror episode plays out as an interactive experience for the viewer.  Every few minutes (and even more frequently at times), you are prompted on screen to make a decision as to what Stefan should do.  You make your choice via your remote control, and then the film unfolds based upon that choice.  Just like in a real Choose Your Own Adventure book, sometimes those choices take you out of the story quickly, as things unfold poorly for poor Stefan.  In those cases, you’re given prompts to either exit the film or retrace your steps and try again.  Netflix lists the film’s runtime as 90 minutes.  You could be done after 30-40 minutes, but I watched and “played” the episode/game for almost two hours.  (Apparently there are many hours of footage that can be discovered based on the choices you make as Stefan during the film!)

First off, this is an absolutely extraordinary technological achievement.  I had zero technical problems while watching “Bandersnatch.”  There wasn’t a hint of a glitch or a delay at any point.  The technology employed to make this happen is incredible.  There are a mind-bending number of different ways that this story can play out.  That Netflix, via streaming, is able to make this complicated branching, interactive viewing experience work is amazing.  I’m also stunned to consider how long it must have taken them to write and film and edit all of these many different branching paths along with the story can unfold!  It’s amazing!

I was instantly hooked into the story, and I had a big smile on my face the entire time as I made my way through this experience.  The whole thing is draped in the usual Black Mirror feeling of dread, which is effective at enhancing the intensity of the story.  The cast is great, and I loved all of the many wild twists and turns.  I was captivated as I made my way through the maze of the story, trying to figure out what to do and to discover where different paths would take me/Stefan.  Some of the endings are mundane, some are gruesome, and some are joyously, mind-bindingly meta.  (Usually the choices presented to the viewer are straightforward, but as you get deeper into the experience, some of them are wonderfully playful.  If you come across the choice between “yeah” and “fuck yeah!” I highly encourage you to choose the latter!)  The whole thing is a tremendous amount of fun (even though you spend a lot of time watching Stefan suffer and loose in a variety of ways)!

I highly recommend “Bandersnatch”!  Even if you’ve never seen an episode of Black Mirror, give this a try.  It entirely stands on its own.  It’s a brilliantly creative new type of TV show/special/game/interactive experience.  I never dreamed I could interact with a TV show in this way.  I will definitely be diving back into “Bandersnatch” some time soon.

(Update: Netflix is probably not thrilled that so many reviewers, like I did, mentioned Choose Your Own Adventure books in reviewing and discussing “Bandersnatch,” because the Choose Your Own Adventure company is apparently now suing Netflix.  D’oh!)

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