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Review: Black Mirror: Bandersnatch


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Charlie Brooker’s highly anticipated interactive episode of Black Mirror cleverly plays with the notion of free will (or lack of) in this ambitious yet chilling new edition to the much-hyped series.

Netflix’s promise of an interactive version of Black Mirror was finally fulfilled yesterday when Black Mirror: Bandersnatch was released. Netflix has been experimenting with interactive episodes for some time on several children’s shows, and what a perfect place to make its mainstream TV debut than Black Mirror. The mind-bending, dystopian series creates the perfect playground for an experiment of this nature. 

Image credit: Netflix

The episode/film is set in 1984 and follows budding game designer, Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead), in his desperate mission to adapt his favourite ‘choose your own adventure’ book, Bandersnatch, into a video game. Following a successful pitch to video game publisher, Tuckersoft, Stefan is hired to create the game.

But would it really be Black Mirror without some sort of dark turn of events? Absolutely not. While writing his game, the 19-year-old quickly spirals into an obsession with the various choices that he feels he must map out, making him question the very nature of choice and his own free will. Given that the author of Stefan’s beloved book ends up going mad and decapitating his wife, we begin to get a feeling that Stefan is on a worrying journey that, to say the least, won’t end very well.

Image credit: Netflix

Throughout the episode, which can range from 90 minutes to five hours in length depending on the route you choose to take, viewers are presenting with an “A or B” style option to pick from. The choices range from simply choosing which cereal to eat, to asking the viewer whether to bury a corpse in the back garden or chop it up. Oh, and you only have 15 seconds to make the choice. 

The result? Well, it’s certainty terrifying but also a little frustrating.  At some points, the constant interruptions of being asked to make a choice for Stefan begin to affect the pace and flow of the narrative and at times the interactive elements felt almost ‘gimmicky’ and unnecessary. In fact, Netflix would invite me back to a previous choice I’d made so I could see where the plot would digress to had I chose the alternative option. For the inquisitive among us who are inevitably asking themselves where Stefan would end up had they chosen another path, this feature is a blessing, However, it can also feel like the show is leading you back to a predetermined path as if to say, “wrong answer, try this one instead”. But, maybe this was very much intentional. After all, the foundation of the plot is based on choice and the effect of our choices. 

That being said, as the story takes off in the second half, the choices do ramp up and become even more harrowing- increasing the familiar horror aspect seen across Black Mirror. A stark contrast to the earlier ‘which music should Stefan play on the bus?’ questions. As the plot enters a rabbit hole, mirroring Stefan’s depleting mental state, the metaphor behind the madness comes to light, and it’s undeniably marvellous. The focus on free will and the looming question of “are we really in control of anything?” manifests itself as paranoia in Stefan as he begins to feel that someone else is controlling him (that someone else being you) - trying to resist certain actions the puppet master has chosen. 

In usual Black Mirror style, the cast did not disappoint, being both striking and compelling in telling the story. Whitehead immerses himself into the role brilliantly, especially as an increasingly paranoid Stefan plummets further into madness. Meanwhile, the other characters, including Stefan’s father (Craig Parkinson) and therapist (Alice Lowe) appear to retain a low-key threat to Stefan. Or is it all just in his head? Brooker is spellbinding at crafting the illusion that no one can be trusted. 

Overall, I felt that the actual plot lacked the focus and direction of previous Black mirror episodes but the execution of an interactive film was not a complete miss. Brooker has crafted a fascinating film exploring the idea of freedom while blurring the lines of reality for both the protagonist and viewer. 

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