Monday, November 16, 2020

Black Mirror Revisit: Bandersnatch

I'd like to begin my dive into
Black Mirror's Bandersnatch with a snipped from Roger Ebert's 1995 1/2 star review of Mr. Payback, the first (and still kind of only) major film release with an audience interactive element:

I went to see "Mr. Payback" with an open mind. I knew it would not be a "movie" as I understand the word, because movies act on you and absorb you in their stories. An "interfilm," as they call this new medium, is like a cross between a video game and a CD-ROM game, and according to Bob Bejan, president and CEO of Interfilm Inc., "suspension of disbelief comes when you begin to believe you're in control." I never believed I was in control. If I had been in control, I would have ended the projection and advised Bejan to go back to the drawing board. While an interactive movie might in theory be an entertaining experience, "Mr. Payback" was so offensive and yokel-brained that being raised in a barn might almost be required of its audiences.

Despite my love of ambitious cinematic bombs and Days of Our Lives heartthrobs, I myself have never seen Mr. Payback, so I can't speak to its actual quality. Still, reading Ebert's review certainly brought up some ties to Black Mirror's most ambitious episode. 

The Talent: Bandersnatch is another Charlie Brooker script, one that I assume required a lot of walls and red string to put together.  He enlists the help of Metalhead's David Slade to direct, which should have been butter on a bagel for me. Ever since he broke out with Hard Candy, Slade has been a consistently interesting genre director, with some good stuff in 30 Days of Night, his many Hannibal episodes, and the only watchable Twilight film. Throw in the wonderfully unnerving William Poulter in a supporting role and Prevenge/Sightseers' Alice Lowe in a small part and Netflix's fancy choose-your-own-adventure technology, and Bandersnatch was set up to be something pretty great for me.

The Setup: It's 1984, and Stefan Butler is a green game designer with big dreams of selling his spec project to Tuckersoft, the Nintendo of its day (I assume; my video game knowledge stops at beating Street Fighter 2 as everyone but Zangief). He gets the opportunity to work with eccentric gaming star Colin Ritman (the endlessly fascinating Poulter) but struggles with some personal demons, including a sour relationship with his father, the tragic death of his mother, low energy from his mental health medication prescribed by his sympathetic psychiatrist (Lowe), and, like, depending on how you navigate your choices, actual bandersnatch demons.

The Ending(s): Obviously, the main reason to watch Bandersnatch is to see what path your sometimes small, sometimes big choices take you down. Upon my revisit, I spent about 2-3 hours backtracking to try out what I could and as far as I could tell, there is no way to bring Stefan to a happy ending. Maybe he dies, maybe he murders, maybe he's an actor playing a kid who will die or murder, but in every variation, his game ultimately receives mediocre to extremely negative (and often self-aware) ways. Just like life?

The Theme: It's fitting that a show airing on a service that feasts upon our personal data to direct us to watch what it needs us to see would ultimately be all about how, well, we have no actual free will.

The Verdict: On second viewing, I could appreciate the structure of Bandersnatch a little more, and I'd be lying if I said it wasn't an impressive, ambitious project. But damnit, why does it have to be so boring? I really hoped I'd feel differently this time around, but even recognizing just how meta the episode is ABOUT its limitations (generally conveyed through the televised game reviews that close out several paths), it's just not fun to watch. Some endings are sad, others are mildly amusing, but not a single one that I reached was actually satisfying.

Technology Tip: What does it matter when everything you do is predetermined?

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale: 3/10 
Sure, things are generally crappy for Stefan, but compared to the suffering of most Brooker characters, this is a pretty light walk in the park

Quality Scale: 6/10 
The acting is fine, the '80s style is believable, and the overall direction certainly works well...

Enjoyment Scale: 3/10
But I'll be happy to never sit through Bandersnatch again. There's such a drab sense of apathy that permeates the whole however-many-hours you watch, and the charm of a gimmick can only last so long. 

Up Next (Month): Black Mirror goes full feature length with Hated In the Nation.


  1. I generally agree with your take on Bandersnatch. It is a really cool idea and you have to give the BM team props because it must have taken a mountain of work to create it...but unfortunately, it just never excels in any direction: it's not especially fun, scary, humorous, disturbing, touching, etc. It just kind of happens then it's over, and that's that.

    I do like the commentary on technology and free will, and I like the idea that we are supposed to put Stefan through living hell and then consider what that says about us, and "what if this was actually happening and I was literally torturing this guy purely for my entertainment?" but that wasn't enough to carry the show for me. I wish more people would explore this 'choose your own adventure' film idea though. I think there is a lot of potential here.

    1. Agreed! I thought the Kimmy Schmidt episode worked out well, so I do think there's a way to use the format in a more entertaining way. I just wish this episode thought about the actual user experience rather than focusing so hard on making the experience ABOUT the format, if you will.