Just before New Years, Netflix released the latest installment in the Black Mirror series: Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. The standalone film deals with Stefan Butler, a young programmer in the 80s that is attempting to adapt a choose your own adventure book into an adventure video game. This film is unique as it attempts to create a choose your own adventure film experience; the viewer can choose from selecting Butler’s breakfast cereal and progressing to murder. Viewers have 10 seconds to make a decision, and once made they are forced to deal with the consequences of their actions.
As decisions are made, the story progresses in unique directions. The average viewing time ranges from 90 minutes to a staggering 150 minutes depending on the decisions made. Executive producers Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones claim that there are a variety of endings that can be achieved by the viewer, with some “golden eggs” endings that require specific interactions to be made in very specific moments in the film.
Like previous Black Mirror creations, this medium allows for the show-runners to present controversial themes in a hard to criticize format. While it does retain its Science Fiction background and its somewhat edgy content, this visual art experiment in my opinion comes up just a bit short of revolutionizing the show viewing experience. My opinion is based on my own unique experience with the film, I used the XBOX One’s Netflix app to view this movie and to take part in its interactive environment.
The visuals and sound effects are excellent, it truly gives that 80s vibe to the film itself; the main protagonist is the stereotypical programmer of the era. The meta-narrative of this film deals with real world “theories” like parallel universes, along with older cultural superstitions that work surprisingly well with the movie’s theme. The mysterious author of the book goes completely insane, and the viewer gets to go on that same trip with Butler as he too begins to show increasing signs of madness.
The interactive part of the movie itself however, falls short of the target. I remember reading choose your own adventure books while growing up, when I asked one of my coworkers (he is 26) if he had ever read one, I had to explain what that type of book meant. While not a good poll size, his interest in the book style made introducing him to this concept a bit easier. I myself struggled with it, not because I could not understand the simple controls in the movie itself, but for different reasons.
It might have been that I saw the film just a few days after its release, but the first time around I didn’t even get the tutorial segment of what I was supposed to be doing. In fact, I never got the choice menu the first time watching this film. If it hadn’t been for a few friends that were more aware of this film that I was, I would have simply called it a mediocre film and went about my day. Instead, I closed the app, and after a few minutes I tried again.
What made choose your own adventure books awesome for me was the slow and steady climb in tension with each decision you made. You had just enough of a description of the next steps to help you either make the correct or incorrect decision, you had to base it completely on what you felt of the character itself. If you were emotionally invested in the character, those decisions became harder to make with each turn of the page. That’s not the case with this movie, or with the characters in general.
Within minutes on my second run, I was already annoyed at the main character. It became so tedious to try to make it through that we eventually adopted a game out of who could last the longest in the movie. From 10 people, the longest was just over an hour, but the lack of substance in the “choices” quickly took the fun out of our game. Of course, we eventually tried switching over to who could finish it in the shortest amount of time, but the story itself is so convoluted that it prevents the viewer from getting invested. There is a “funny” Easter egg where you, as the viewer, can interact with Butler and confirm one of his growing madness induced theories, but after the first time it loses its charm.
While this was an interesting experiment, I think that this film suffered from its own hype. The decisions that were available lacked any sort of real consequence for a long time into the narrative. Once it does have some real impact on the story, you forgot what decision you made that took you down that path. Once you finish a particular section of the story, you have the option to view the credits or try again from a particular decision branch.
This type of medium unfortunately limits a true sense of decision making because of the difficulty in creating, filming, and editing this piece. I saw two runs made with very different decisions somehow arrive at the same conclusion. This is in no way the film maker’s fault, it is simply a technological limitation that if embraced differently could revolutionize film and television. If this type of model can create a revenue for the stream service and the film makers, I wager to say that this story will be cited as an influential piece of work. However, at this point in time I would only recommended it as a curiosity piece.
If you have a few hours down time or need a group activity that can easily be turned into a drinking game, check out Black Mirror: Bandersnatch on Netflix.