#Netflix’s #BlackMirror: #Bandersnatch is the last must-bingewatch of the year
Charlie Brooker has reinvented the anthology series with a cynical signature in Black Mirror, a show that’s part cautionary tale, part cyber-horror, subscribing to the notion that the abyss is real: in our homes as a computer screen, a phone, a pair of headphones – and it absolutely stares right back.
Each episode establishes a dystopic premise, usually stretching it to the most earth-shattering (and often over-the-top) conclusion possible. Thankfully, episodes like “Hang the DJ” and “San Junipero” are welcome breaks in the thematic monotony: brief flashes of optimism in a sea of portent and accusation.
The dialogue and pacing are taut, but Charlie Brooker too often attempts to grab us by the hair and press our noses to the page, forcing us to read between the lines – and stop tweeting so much, while you’re at it!
For those well versed in masochistic viewing, the show is a delight, meticulously designed to make you feel queasy looking at the very device you’re watching the episode on. Anyone with an ounce of paranoia has likely taken a roll of tape to that laptop after the grisly ending to “Shut Up and Dance”, covering up that HAL-9000 webcam at the top of the screen: no telling who could be behind it, watching.
Netflix took over the originally British-made show in 2016, upping the episode count and the production value while injecting the series with an ever-so-slight dose of hope. It still succeeded in scaring the shit out of us every other episode, though. Seasons 3 and 4 were all anyone could talk about in 2016 and 2017, but 2018 has seen the show take a little hiatus.
However, the day before it was released, the trailer for a Black Mirror event dropped: a feature-length episode in the style of a choose-your-own-adventure novel or video game called “Bandersnatch”, guaranteed – if the series’s track record has any bearing – to swoop in at the last minute and completely ruin our year.
Stefan Butler (Dunkirk’s Fionn Whitehead) is a young, aspiring game developer and huge science fiction geek. He thumbs through a gargantuan tome by eccentric author Jerome F. Davies, an addictive choose-your-own-adventure he flips back and forth while a status bar appears on the bottom of the screen; we, the audience, are tasked with choosing his breakfast for the morning.
We eventually discover Davies has a tragic and violent past, Stefan himself is in therapy, and Will Poulter’s character, wunderkind coder Colin Ritman, might know more than he’s letting on. From there the episode descends into traditional Black Mirror escapades, featuring dream sequences, talking computers, and a heavy-handed deconstruction of free will.
The good news: the audience participation format actually works incredibly well. Decisions points are mostly seamless, taking care not to break the flow with disruptive long shots as you contemplate your choice. Instead, pathways are taken in what seems like a split second and, if you’re watching along with friends as we imagine is intended, you’ll find yourself making dumb choices as you shout your votes in unison.
Annoyingly, the story itself is more a skeleton of what could be done with the concept, leaning a little too heavily on introspection. As in the more reflective video games of the last few years, you’re often tasked with choosing a violent or ridiculous action – with Netflix lingering in the aftermath with inevitably tacit judgement.
All the while, the backtracking, easter eggs, and unlockable memories encourage you to try every possible combination, so your only available option becomes forcing poor Fionn into increasingly horrific & confusing scenarios.
“Bandersnatch” is a wild, infuriating ride, and there’s every possibility the feature, and future projects in the same style, are designed for party viewing rather than quiet, reflective solo viewing.
While the story may have you scratching your head, the plot twists, hallucinogenic sequences, and bonkers intricacies frequently had us jumping out of our skin and, when paired with Bird Box and even the more meditative ROMA, it’s gratifying to see Netflix finally treating original releases as major events.
The narrative isn’t quite as thrilling as the best Black Mirror episodes, but “Bandersnatch” is an essential prototype for things to come. It’s easy to imagine children’s cartoons, romantic dramas, and even fantasy spectacle operating just as well or better with the same format – if Netflix and other streaming platforms can find the budget.
When the choose-your-own-plot genre takes off, “Bandersnatch” won’t be considered among the best, but for a decent first run that features Alice Lowe doing martial arts, the best bad hairpieces of the year, and an adorable retro WHSmith (ask your British Twitter followers), it’s an incredibly entertaining way to cap off the year.
In fact, we recommend throwing “Bandersnatch” on during the warmup to your New Year’s Eve party: guaranteed to get you drunker than last year.