Choose-Your-Own-Adventures books are always a lot of fun. You’re able to explore multiple different endings to a story, some ridiculous, some serious, and you’re able to replay that story countless times to explore each different branch of the story. It’s a method of storytelling that’s never really been tried in film or TV before. Before Bandersnatch, that is. Bandersnatch is the first film in the Black Mirror series. Written by Charlie Brooker and directed by David Slade, Bandersnatch is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure film that allows audiences to choose how the story of Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead) plays out. It’s a whole lot of fun and genuinely impressive to watch (and participate in). (NOTE: There will be spoilers for Bandersnatch. I will try to keep them minor, but it’s hard to talk about this film without spoiling some things.)
In 1984, a young programmer begins to question reality as he adapts a sprawling fantasy novel into a video game and soon faces a mind-mangling challenge.
It’s hard to review this movie as I counted no less than five completely different endings. It’s a genuine Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story, down to the fact that if you choose a really bad option, the story will straight up just end right there and it’ll tell you to go back and try again and that’s a whole lot of fun. Most of the choices you make seem fairly inconsequential; things like picking a particular cereal to eat or a song to listen to. But then there are bigger options (and plenty of them) that have drastic impacts on the outcome of the story. What’s fun about those options is that there often isn’t an obvious choice; there are pros and cons to each choice and you really have to think about the choice you’re making (and what the consequences of that choice might be) before you make it and that kind of in-depth thought is what makes this whole gimmick feel less like a gimmick.
The other fun thing about the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure gimmick is that the episode more or less acknowledges that someone is making decisions for Stefan. Early on in the story, Stefan meets a fellow game developer, Colin Ritman (Will Poulter), who introduces Stefan to drugs and reveals to him that he believes they’re all living in one of many timelines and that their choices don’t ultimately matter as, in another timeline, they’ll have made the opposite choice. This line of thought is what ultimately drives the story to its climax as Stefan becomes more and more convinced that someone is watching him and forcing him to do things and he ultimately confronts the viewer and demands they tell him who they are. We’re then given two choices, (one of those choices being that we’re “Netflix” which leads to a pretty bonkers ending involving a massive conspiracy) that then leads us to have to decide whether or not to kill Stefan’s dad (Craig Parkinson), and if we do kill him, whether or not to bury the body or chop it up (one option leads to one ending while the other option leads to a pretty amazing meta ending that involves a future programmer trying to resurrect Stefan’s code and a beautiful Black Mirror twist that I won’t spoil here).
I can’t imagine the amount of work that Charlie Brooker, David Slade, and the various other people who made this film had to put into it. Pulling something like this off is extremely complicated. They had to script and film each possible decision the viewer might make and they had to devise a system to effectively deliver those choices to the viewer as they made them. There had to have been so much pre and post-production on this film for it to even exist. So, with that said, it’s truly amazing how good this movie is. Yes, it’s ultimately a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure gimmick, but this is also Charlie Brooker we’re talking about; he doesn’t half-ass things.
This film’s narrative is as compelling as any regular Black Mirror episode would be. The main character, Stefan, is an interesting and multi-faceted character and his slide into madness makes up much of what this film explores (which is what Black Mirror is best at doing). The surrounding characters are all interesting and mysterious and compelling as well. Of particular enjoyment is Dr. Hayes (Alice Lowe), Stefan’s therapist. In true Black Mirror fashion, you aren’t ever sure if she’s really on Stefan’s side or not. You’re also never really sure if Stefan is actually experiencing these events or if he’s just having some pretty massive delusions. That’s an idea that Black Mirror has played with before, but it works particularly well in a story that revolves around an outside force deciding what the main character is going to do.
All in all, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is an enjoyable film. It’s less of a film and more of an interactive experience, but those interactive elements don’t take away from the experience of the film. Bandersnatch very much has a beginning, a middle, and an ending (although it’s a bit unclear as to which ending should be considered the “true” ending; though, I’d argue that’s half the fun of this). The interactive elements mesh very well with the story; they don’t feel out of place and, from a technological standpoint, they’re implemented seamlessly and there’s very little loading time when you actually make a selection. The cinematography, acting, and soundtrack are all up to the standards you’d expect from Black Mirror and I just can’t emphasize enough how impressive this film is. It’s an unprecedented experiment in Choose-Your-Own-Adventure storytelling and it works remarkably well. I’d absolutely recommend checking it out.
4.5 out of 5 wands