By Noah Howard
Although “Bandersnatch” is about decision-making, I can’t decide what to make of it. Is it a brilliant analysis of both free will and the nature of technology’s influence on our minds? Possibly. Is it a dated, derivative take on well-worn ideas? Could be. Is it an extended, mildly amusing joke at the viewer’s expense? Sometimes. It’s impossible to decide.
In this extended episode of “Black Mirror,” the viewer controls Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead), a young programmer in the 1980s obsessed with adapting his favorite “choose-your-own-adventure” fantasy novel into an equally choice-based video game. The viewer controls Stefan’s decisions at predetermined points (by touching or clicking certain actions on-screen), from minor choices — like what type of cereal to eat — to major life-altering moments — like the acceptance or rejection of a major publishing contract for his game. “Bandersnatch” quickly becomes as obsessed with its own format as Stefan is with his game, layering fourth-wall-break after fourth-wall-break in a bizarre network of storylines that runs the gamut from conspiracy-thriller to a tragic tale of madness. With all of “Bandersnatch”’s branching paths and varying endings, it’s easy to see how its creators may have overwhelmed themselves with their own ambition.
“Bandersnatch” is fascinating because of its interactive mechanic: Every storyline feels plausible, and writer Charlie Brooker has smartly sprinkled clues and hints throughout the film that are able to logically justify and contextualize any one of the numerous endings. But Brooker and director David Slade seem so concerned with exploring the full potential of this control-based gimmick that they, ironically, lose control over their own work. The best “Black Mirror” episodes stand out for their tight storytelling, narrowly focusing in on one fear of the digital age, and commenting on it in a specific and insightful manner. “Bandersnatch,” on the other hand, lacks a single ideological conclusion because it lacks a single conclusion at all; some of the endings give way to wildly different — but all weak and incomplete — interpretations of the film, while others contain no philosophical message whatsoever and are played up for cheap, and tonally inconsistent, laughs.
Whatever version of the film graces your screen, “Bandersnatch” is destined to wallow in mediocrity. While its choice-based format allows for greater empathy with Stefan’s mental illness, its depiction of Stefan’s paranoid, obsessive, “dangerous” personality is not only laughably oversimplified but deeply problematic in (what is now) 2019. Stefan’s illness makes him the straight-jacketed “threat” stereotype that has contributed far too much to stigma over the decades, and the idea that Stefan is delusional and violent runs counter to the subtlety that “Black Mirror”’s characterization usually holds. Its attempts to comment on the nature of free will within interactive entertainment has been done before, and done far better (go play “Bioshock” or “The Stanley Parable,” both of which are video games that understand the nature of choice in interactive entertainment far better than “Bandersnatch” does), and the “brain in a vat”/”your reality is fake” trope, is, by this point, unoriginal sci-fi territory (watch “Inception,” “The Matrix” or, for that matter, a number of previous episodes of “Black Mirror,” instead).
“Bandersnatch” is undoubtedly smart, but it thinks it’s smarter than it actually is. Most “Black Mirror” viewers come to the show for its thought-provoking philosophy and argument-starting ethical dilemmas; those viewers will be disappointed. “Bandersnatch” may try to instill some paranoid vision of whether you have free will. Spoiler alert: You do, and you can use it to choose to watch something else.
Contact Noah Howard at noah.howard ‘at’ stanford.edu.