Black Mirror is back with a feature length interactive film on Netflix. Netflix has trialed this technology in four films on their kids platform. However, this is the first time the technology has been used in collaboration with such a high profile and well-loved series. It is an interesting move by the streaming platform and the show runners that will no doubt be scrutinised for its artistic value and its commercial potential. Before we dive into the body of this review, I’ll give a mild spoiler warning and also a disclaimer that I am a massive Charlie Brooker fan. When most people went through their One Direction phase I went through a Charlie Brooker phase that has never really ended. I will endeavour to be objective.
Black Mirror has become a zeitgeist of sorts. From its humble origins on Channel 4 to being taken under the wing of behemoth Netflix. Like the Twilight zone before it, Black Mirror has an ability to capture our fears and worries mix them all up present them back to us. Yet recent seasons of the show have not received the same total and resounding adulation as before.
Some episodes of season four in particular left me feeling only luke-warm. However, being as it is an anthology having a few dud episodes does not write off the whole series and as each story is completely different they are likely to appeal more to some than to others. Yet this does mean that a one off Black Mirror film is not fated for success. It could easily fall sour. Pioneering this new technology is also a risk. It could appear gimmicky or just not work at all.
So far, the early reviews and thoughts coming in for Bandersnatch are overwhelmingly positive with a few sprinklings of concern that the narrative has suffered as dwelt in second place with their handling of this tricky technology. Personally, I really enjoyed this new avenue for Black Mirror. The thoughts about the weak narrative did not hit me at the time of viewing. However, on reflection I think these critics have a point yet at the same time miss the point. I will get on to this in a little bit.
Firstly, to indulge in some of the many things I loved about the film. Perhaps the most superficial aspect I savoured was the 80s setting. The music, the clothes, the retro W H Smiths shop front. It is all joyous and I revelled in it. The show runners are clearly hoping for some of the success of 80s bonanza San Junipero to rub off on their latest project and that hunch and that has paid off again. It may be a bit of fun and frivolity to throw back to this extravagant decade. However, it also is a way of showing off. The writers do not need to depend on the threat of the future to tap into universal and profound anxieties.
The look of the piece is very cool featuring a wild drug induced hallucinatory scene. As well as the switching of screen width which effectively portrays a change in time and perspective and also creates a strong sense of us as the audience as the voyeur. Being made aware of our role as observer is crucial in the complicity we feel when making ethical choices for Stefan. I fund the experience surprisingly enjoyable given the fact that I hate making decisions in my own life. The decisions we have to make for Stefan get increasingly more ethically troubling and ultimately downright disturbing. Yet and the beginning there is something kind of alluring in being able to choose risqué decisions for Stefan that you would never choose for yourself. Yes Stefan, you will take that LSD, I decided, whilst sat in my dressing gown dipping a chocolate digestive into my tea. Black Mirror allows us to revel in being given the power and then suddenly turns this power it into an increasingly nightmarish fever dream.
Bandersnatch raises some interesting philosophical questions. The main one being free will. Show runners Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones explained in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter that to prevent the branching narratives feeling meaningless and disparate the conceit itself has to be baked into the story. The issue of free will is as inherent to the story as it is to the interactive technology. As the audience, we are forced to confront what it is we want to see on screen by the choices we make for Stefan. On many different levels of meta, too numerous to count, and with many walls broken, we confront free will in many ways. Stefan feels out of control of his choices and we know it is because we are making them.
The acknowledgement with in the show of our involvement of creates the illusion of reality by creating a bridge between the fictional and us the existing. The discussion of parallel universes seems to ultimately foster a dangerous nihilism not only for him but for us. As Stefan begins to feel he is losing control of his decisions we do to. Notably with the decisions over whether to kill Stefan’s dad. Every time you chose to save his dad we are taken back to the beginning to make the decision again. This goes on and on until ultimately, we get frustrated, feel that our choice is meaningless and chose to kill Stefan’s dad. Just like we were controlling Stefan, Netflix was controlling us.
In the universe it presents, one where all meaning is stripped away, we can put on a cloak of monstrous madness with no more than a mindless shrug, because none of it matters anyway. It also raises, a time old question about whether what is shown on TV and film says anything about the morality of its audience. In the Black Mirror universe, I think we can judge people somewhat by the which episode is their favourite. If your number one is San Junipero then you a moral, pure, and well-serving citizen if your favourite is White Bear then you are probably a bit of a wrong-un. Bandersnatch makes us more complicit as we now shape our own vision of what we want to see. In this way, the show also employs more applied ethical issues.
The crafting of the film is very deliberate and well executed to communicate these ideas effectively. However, I also agree that the narrative is not as strong as other Black Mirror episodes. Depending on what decisions you make a lot of what you see is repetitive. Also, if you strip away the interactive function the story is very by the by and not particularly innovative. This may be true. However, I don’t think that the show runners had this in mind when creating the programme. It has to be repetitive to make us question the freeness of our choices. Whereas a traditional film would lose my interest with so much repetition the interaction with the feature forces us to be engage through-out. The technology is built into the story rather than being an add on so it would be incongruous to try and separate out the two. A basic storyline serves the use of the technology. I wouldn’t want every episode of Black Mirror to be this way but Bandersnatch fulfils its purpose extremely well.
Black Mirror continues to push on and pursue new ideas that are now representing themselves in the form the show takes. While I don’t think Bandersnatch will be definitive of a new path to Black Mirror it has shown that this series is still driving comfortably and assuredly forward in its own lane of the TV road.