The December release of Netflix’s new Black Mirror event, titled Bandersnatch, drew a lot of attention from not only Black Mirror fans but from Netflix users as a whole. Advertised as an interactive film, it follows the ‘choose your own adventure’ element of many old video games from the 80’s era in which the film is set. However, an interesting concept was all that it turned out to be; its downfall stemmed from an uninteresting plot that was unsuccessful in providing the usually meaningful, intriguing story that Black Mirror had consistently presented in the past.
The film follows Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead) as he develops his own ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ video game and presents it to Mohan Thakur (Asim Chaudhry) and Colin Ritman (Will Poulter), both of whom work at a video game company. Portrayed as a troubled character, riddled with anxiety after his mother’s death, paired with a strained relationship with his father; the characteristically bleak narrative of a Black Mirror story was indeed reached.
However, the interactivity that was built into the film allowed the viewer to choose different paths for Stefan throughout the plot to achieve different endings, was both tiresome and, in many places, unnecessary. After around 40 minutes of making decisions for the character that never actually seemed to make an impact upon the story, the concept that had initially seemed innovative became tiresome. Once I had realised that there was actually no purpose in choosing between Sugar Puffs and Frosties for Stefan’s breakfast, I had lost hope for the credibility of the rest of the film.
Clearly the focus for the film was on the interactivity, not the actual fleshing out of the story, with almost every alternate ending leaving me extremely unsatisfied. Ranging from a choice to make him fight his therapist (which turns out to be a scene in a movie and all of them are actors), to make him jump into a mirror which takes him into the past so he can die with his mother. All the endings seemed to be placed there purely for shock factor and not to efficiently provide an ending to Stefan’s story.
Other choices also lead to the reveal of who is controlling Stefan, allowing him to know that it is in fact a Netflix user ruining his life. The break of the fourth wall in theory should work in a Black Mirror episode; however even here it falls flat and seems tedious and worthless to the endings.
Probably the only intricately placed and thought provoking idea that was pretty well-incorporated into the plot surrounded the beliefs of free will and what controls us in society. Fitting in well as a narrative in an interactive game, Will Poulter’s character cleverly uses the analogy of Pacman to describe how life is like a video game in which we are controlled and chased by our own demons that are probably only in our minds.
Being one of the only interesting plot developments in the film, this lead the characters on an LSD high to dare each other to jump off a balcony to prove that when you die you can simply start over again, just like in a video game, with the viewer being allowed to choose who does so. This description of free will would have been interesting to continue throughout the film, but becomes lost in Netflix’s attempt to incorporate itself into the film in a vain endeavour to create a cool moment, which totally did not happen.
Also, if you are a Black Mirror fan you may have noticed the array of easter eggs and references to past episodes of the series that were sprinkled throughout the film. These were a homage to the success of their previous stories, and a depressing reminder of how unsuccessful this higher budget attempt was.
Reception of the film was not amazing, thankfully, as this may have influenced Netflix to make more content using this interactivity. All that it really achieved was the creation of a meme that lasted about a day before dying out, and did not really provide any thinking points (beyond a five minute confusion regarding free will) that a Black Mirror episode normally does. The interactivity drove many users mad, and hopefully Netflix saw the commentary and have learned their lesson.
The narrative of technological advancement that Black Mirror has sustained throughout its four seasons does indeed validate the attempt to create an interactive film, as it is very on brand and seems like it could be part of an episode it would create.
However, I think the success of Black Mirror revolves around the idea that we know that most of the things we see on the series will never in fact become a reality, hence why we are so intrigued by them. The programme has created a sense of fear and caution to go alongside the introduction of new technology that could affect the way we live, and this could have extended upon our reception of the unique style of Bandersnatch. Respect has to be given to Netflix and the Black Mirror team for trying something risky on a mainstream platform, but risks cannot be justified by replacing quality and thought provoking narratives with quirky but wearisome interactive features.
When the release of Bandersnatch was announced, much speculation occurred as to whether this interactive film concept would become revolutionary and applicable to more content in the future. As many hope that it will not be, I think the reception to the film has informed Netflix that this is not the way forward for big budget, highly-followed series or movies.
Also with the recent lawsuit that has been put forward by “Chooseco” for the trademark infringement of the use of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” phrase for upwards of $25 million in damages; Netflix clearly needs to learn when to give recognition to the influences of their content, but will most likely lay this fruitless feature to rest. This also strikes up the question of what Netflix will do next.
It is already known that the streaming platform is expected to create 90 original movies next year, with some having a budget of around $200 million. It should definitely be expected that there will be additions of some more unique features in an attempt to revolutionise the way in which we watch our entertainment, for better or for worse. Whether or not Netflix will succeed is a question to which the answer seems unclear; we will simply have to wait patiently to experience the future of the biggest streaming service.