Warning: SPOILERS below for Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.
Bandersnatch has arrived on Netflix, allowing viewers to choose their own Black Mirror adventure. The Black Mirror: Bandersnatch interactive movie ostensibly puts viewers in control of the story, with your choices influencing which way the story goes. However, while the mechanics are great, the story created leaves something to be desired.
Bandersnatch begins with Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead), a programmer who dreams of making it as a video game designer. His goal is to turn the book Bandersnatch, by Jerome F. Davies, into a computer game, taking his idea to Tuckersoft. There he works for boss Mohan Thakur (Asim Chaudhry) and with his idol, Colin Ritman (Will Poulter). His efforts at making the game lead to isolation, further mental health issues, and, eventually, murder. Along the way, we're presented with choices ranging from the hilariously mundane (Sugar Puffs or Frosties?) to the incredibly brutal (do you want to chop your dad up into pieces, or choose the nice option of a simple backyard burial?).
All of this is done seamlessly, and you can tell that Charlie Brooker (a huge video game fan) and his team worked hard at getting this aspect right. The actual gameplay, as it were, is quite good. There are plenty of occasions to choose different routes, and the options themselves are often difficult to choose between. What's more, you really get the sense that your choices are going to have an impact. What's less impressive, though, is the story of Bandersnatch itself. The focus is (understandably) entirely on the interactive elements, which means the actual narrative feels incredibly slight. The basic crux, regardless of choices, is that Stefan works for Tuckersoft, the game takes a mental toll on him, you kill your dad, and end up in prison with the game either unfinished, released but badly reviewed, or a great success.
There's some potential in there, but Black Mirror: Bandersnatch rarely fulfills it. Because of the interactive nature, there's no room for real character development, nor any proper insight into Stefan's struggles. We don't get much plot about what's happening with the game, nor a study of his mental illness. There's little room given to understanding who these people are or the choices they - or we - make, and before you know it you're chopping up a corpse. Things just happen because we choose them to. Or rather, we're given the illusion of choice, as the game makes sure to take you back down different paths to get the full experience. Outside of the technological innovation, and the odd bit of meta-commentary, it's about as barebones a Black Mirror story as possible.
That goes thematically as much as it does narratively. Bandersnatch's story hits most of the same beats that Black Mirror is well-versed in; technology is bad, we're all trapped, and free will doesn't exist. All in all, everything's doomed. It's another story enshrined in fatalism, except this time with some shiny new bells and whistles. There was a feeling in Black Mirror season 4 that Brooker was running out of things to say with Black Mirror, and Bandersnatch does nothing to allay those fears. Bandersnatch offers no real statement, nor innovation or surprises beyond the new format. Here’s hoping Black Mirror season 5, which this hasn’t replaced, offers something more.
It works better, then, when viewed through the lens of being an old-school computer game, but with updated graphics and played through Netflix. Like the point-and-click adventures of old, it's more in the fun of playing along than it is the narrative, and that's where Bandersnatch succeeds the most. Brooker himself even nods to this when you go down the Netflix path, with Dr. Haynes wondering why, if someone else is making this happen, it isn't more exciting. That actually leads to one of the most fun sequences in the whole movie, but the meta-humor can't disguise that it's also a real flaw: the story isn't all that exciting. It's barely even a story. With Bandersnatch, it's as if Brooker himself was given two options: "Make a fun game" or "Tell a compelling story." It's clear that he chose the former.