Attention: Spoilers ahead!
Bandersnatch offers us the enticing possibility of immersing ourselves deeper in the world of Black Mirror by way of an interactive movie. I admire the effort and I suspect we’ll be be witnessing a convergence of video game mechanics and streaming films over the coming years, but my verdict on Bandersnatch is that it lacks polish and feels clunky and awkward, ultimately detracting from the viewing experience. It’s tempting to go easy on Bandersnatch since this is the first time Netflix has experimented with this format, but on the other hand evaluating it as critically as possible offers more opportunities for potential improvement in the future. The critique below therefore doesn’t really focus on the story of Bandersnatch but on the execution of the format, since I felt that squandered the potential that an otherwise interesting topic had.
As excited as I am for Black Mirror to explore free will, the method for interacting with the world (i.e. an outside power making choices) by no means needed to also be the thesis of the story. This concept could also have been applied to almost any story within the Black Mirror universe since almost all of them involve the characters questioning their choices, morality, or reality. It’s a little on-the-nose and shortly into Bandersnatch the viewer already gets kicked in the shin under the table by dialog: “It can be helpful to revisit things; you might discover something new.” Or in other words: “It’s all about choices, in case you’re an idiot and don’t see where this is going!”
This was amplified by the fact that there were distinct endings followed by resets, followed by “previously on Bandersnatch” montages. These kept pulling me out of the world and reminded me, “You are not a part of this, you’re just watching Netflix.” Granted, this is Netflix’s first experiment with this format, but this type of story has been tackled before outside of books and been done well. For example, The Stanley Parable is a video game with essentially the same thesis as Bandersnatch, however I’d categorize it as an example of masterful non-linear storytelling. It too tends to prod or break the fourth wall although it doesn’t do this while trying to tell another narrative: there isn’t another story there. The game is entirely about a character named Stanley who seems to have free will yet is still trapped within his world and whose choices are constantly limited by The Narrator. The reason I bring up the Stanley Parable is because without consulting a flow chart on the Internet, it’s not entirely clear where one “run” ends and another begins. They flow into each other and when you do get “hard reset,” something in the world has always changed and you’d miss it if you had to fast-forward through what you already did. The only place I saw this handled elegantly in Bandersnatch was towards the beginning where, by adding the dialog between Stefan and Colin where they seemed to already know what the other was thinking, the film made it clear that “you’ve been here before, traveler.”
Furthermore, in the Stanley Parable, every decision matters, and in the rare case where a decision does not (for example being forced to choose between two doors which ultimately enter the same room), it serves as a lesson in futility. In Bandersnatch, many choices (such as choosing cereal or cassette tapes) have no effect on the story (i.e. they are not “crossroads” moments) yet they carry the same disruptive cost as a “crossroads” decision despite their lack of impact on the narrative. Because of this cost, Bandersnatch needs to be subtle and selective about where it stops the action to consult the audience. Unfortunately, it’s not. Apart from the meaningless choices, there’s also the entire “Netflix” path, which is cheesy, stupid, and adds nothing to the story. I’m sure it was intended to be a humorous easter-egg but at worst it reeks of being something a project manager at Netflix felt would appease the marketing department, and best could be called comedic relief. The problem with either is that the viewer might unwittingly stumble into it, completely disrupting their journey, yanking them out of the world of Black Mirror and beating them over the head with “How cool is this new format!?” It’s a disservice to the dark gravitas of Bandersnatch that this was included in the final cut.
Ultimately, the rather cumbersome story-telling format robbed the story of its potential. Bandersnatch goes for breadth at the expense of depth and despite feeling successful in traversing the many paths to their various ends, I had the feeling after 70 minutes that the meal was all bones and no meat. Black Mirror has a tendency to leave you wondering about the greater context thanks to its vignette format, but the paucity of backstory in Bandersnatch left me craving more information about Pax, PACS, and Mr. Davies, and ultimately dissatisfied when weighed against the experimental format’s shortcomings.
Final rating: ★★☆☆☆