Arts and Entertainment

Wig Was Not BanderSNATCHED

“Bandersnatch” makes the audience question the boundaries between reality and simulation with its innovative interactive format.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Jiahe Wang

It starts with Stefan waking up from bed on a normal day, and it ends…with whichever ending you choose. But no matter which way you go, things only turn out worse for the main character in the newest episode of “Black Mirror.”

“Black Mirror” is a British sci-fi TV series that presents a bleak view of the future and discusses the unexpectedly dark implications of scientific development. The anthology show has been a massive success—each standalone episode explores a different side of the relationship between humanity and the assistance of digital technology.

Netflix’s long-awaited interactive episode, “Bandersnatch,” allows the viewers to make choices so as to influence the final outcome of the plot. It is quite similar to choose-your-own-adventure games, letting the audience decide on things as trivial as whether to have Frosted Flakes or Sugar Puffs for breakfast. But there are also choices as daunting as whether or not to risk your life revisiting the past through a portal.

Set in the 1980s, the young protagonist Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) is an aspiring game designer who is currently working on a video game adaptation of his beloved fantasy novel, the eponymous “Bandersnatch.” At the video game company he works at, he encounters Colin Ritman (Will Poulter), a somewhat eccentric genius programmer who sets off a series of mysterious events that sends Stefan into a labyrinthian fever dream in which he starts questioning the existence of free will and the possibility of alternate realities. The interactive element subverts the viewer’s traditionally passive role—I found myself nervously clutching the remote control while waves of adrenaline rushed over me throughout the episode.

Adding to this suspense is cinematographer Aaron Morton’s careful work. Flooded with dull blue-gray tones and elegant muted colors, the world of “Bandersnatch” is at once suffocating and amusingly hypnotic. This creates underlying anxiety that overshadows the seemingly serene neighborhood, setting the tone of the tragedy that lies ahead of Stefan.

Yet, the promise of a grand concept and beautiful cinematography cannot mask the blandness of the story itself. Once I finally got over my initial excitement about the new approach to storytelling, I found the plot disappointingly empty and shallow. The entire story is built on meta self-referential concepts, for all the characters and plot points are only there to support the theme of alternate reality and manipulation of free will. At one point, Stefan talks about feeling like he is being controlled by someone, as if a higher power is making all of his decisions for him. Here, the audience is prompted to break the fourth wall and tell the bewildered Stefan that he is a character in a Netflix show.

Apart from the clever meta-irony, “Bandersnatch” has little to offer, and it is not nearly as thought-provoking as previous episodes of “Black Mirror.” For example, episode “White Bear” explores the perverse enjoyment the masses derive from punishing criminals, drawing attention to complex moral concepts such as the hypocrisy of ordinary people and the sadism we can exert on one another. Another memorable episode, “The National Anthem,” tells an equally engrossing yet much more disturbing story: a kidnapper abducts the British princess and demands that the prime minister Michael Callow have “unsimulated sexual intercourse” with a pig on live television. This, or the princess will be murdered. As we are repulsed by the idea of such vulgarity, the amusement displayed by the audience makes us question the dehumanizing effect the media has on people.

However, unlike these episodes, “Bandersnatch” fails to deliver a substantial message. The main theme of the episode, simulation theory (denying the existence of self-determination), has already become a cinematic cliché. The film merely throws this concept at the viewers without providing much analysis, bringing nothing new to the table. After watching—or rather, playing—the episode, I had the same doubt as Stefan’s therapist; after a paranoid Stefan rushes into her office and claims that he is being trapped in “an entertainment streaming service from the future,” she reassures him that he is delusional, saying that “If this was entertainment, surely you'd make it more interesting.” The plot itself is lifeless and bland due to most of the choices leading up to abrupt endings. The only entertainment “Bandersnatch” offers is through its innovative concept, rather than a good narrative.

And the story itself is underdeveloped and has several plot holes. Take the scene where Colin pressures Stefan to try LSD for the first time. Colin gives a seemingly philosophical speech about how everyone is being controlled and there is no free will—all under the influence of hallucinogens. However, his logic is faulty and shallow. For example, he urges Stefan to commit suicide by jumping off the balcony of his apartment, since his actions won’t affect his parallels in alternate realities. Yet this doesn’t make sense—the Stefan in this reality still dies.

Many critics view “Bandersnatch” as a pioneer in this new genre, blurring the boundaries between television and video games and opening up countless possibilities of what future entertainment will look like. However, I do not believe that interactive movies will become widely popular in the future.

First, most people only have the patience to play through the movie once. During the gameplay, the audience is frequently prompted to go back to previous plot points and change their choices when they encounter bad endings. However, I found this design extremely exhausting and repetitive. After going back to the same scene several times, I gradually began to lose my patience. I doubt most people will replay the movie to unlock more endings, which boasts a staggering total of five hours of footage. On top of that, many of the endings are quite arbitrary and feel unresolved, not delivering a substantial message regarding the theme of the film. Without exploring all five possible main endings, we do not get a full sense of what the narrative is trying to convey.

Second, when a story is nonlinear, it is hard to develop a complex plot with character development and foreshadowing. A reason why the narrative seems so lifeless is that the format restricts further creativity. Stefan shows virtually no personality and is merely a vessel for carrying the concept. His motives are unclear (which is evident, since the viewer is the one making all the choices), and things happen arbitrarily just to move the plot along.

Third, the viewer has some control over the progression of the story, but not enough. One is not given full autonomy to explore the world of the story, but is also unable to sit back and fully immerse themselves in the plot, putting them in an uncomfortably awkward position. The choices they are given are limited and steer the plot toward a specific direction. For example, they can choose which type of cereal to have for breakfast, but choosing not to eat at all is off limits. This lack of freedom caused by the structure detracts from the fundamentally important entertainment aspect of interactive films.

So, while there will probably be a few more copycat interactive films in the near future, the trend won’t last long. “Bandersnatch” is already plagued by the limitations on storytelling and the inevitable repetitiveness of its format, and despite advertising itself as a film in which viewers control the storyline, the film is unable to even completely fulfill that claim.

However, “Bandersnatch” is not without its merits. It brings up a relevant point concerning entertainment’s important role in our modern society. It criticizes the cynicism of the viewers behind the titular “black mirror”—the screens of our digital devices. With a theme similar to Peter Weir’s movie “The Truman Show,” the film condemns the shallow enjoyment provided by perverse situations played out in fiction that is so prevalent in our current world. We rejoice in seeing Stefan suffer as each of our bad decisions spirals his life downhill to the point where he loses both his sanity and his loved ones. We, the audience, are complicit in causing all his pain while playing the role of God. Furthermore, the blurred lines between reality and simulation is an acute question that is all the more resonant during the digital age. When free will is no longer portrayed as a certainty, we can’t help but ask, “What is real?”