“Bandersnatch,” the new film released on Netflix Dec. 28, exists in a paradox. (That’s fitting, for a stand-alone entry of “Black Mirror,” an anthology series that thrives on simple enough philosophical conundra.) On the one hand, a branching film with multiple endings, so formally unlike what television generally is, could not be made and broadcast to quite so many people without the imprimatur of a well-loved series. On the other, “Bandersnatch,” as creative work and not as experiment, falls so short of the standard “Black Mirror” has set that to put it forward is to risk the credibility the series’s first four seasons have earned.
After a brief preamble explaining the way the show functions — viewers are able to click and choose which forked path protagonist Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) takes — we’re plunged into a story that seems even at first blush a bit thin. Stefan is an aspiring video game designer working on a game whose many binary choices yield a massive volume of potential outcomes. After obtaining the hands-off support of a leading tech company, he struggles in solitude with completing the game, and begins to descend into mania.
As far as I can tell, that’s the premise more or less whatever choice you make. Early choices, like what cereal Stefan eats in the morning or what tape he listens to, are facile — and they prime the audience, accurately, for a filmed entertainment that’s quite a bit like old “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels, one in which many choices have absolutely no consequence. To wit, if you instruct Stefan to accept an offer of help working on his game, a more experienced game designer (Will Poulter) says “Wrong path” and you experience the story all over again. Along the paths I took through “Bandersnatch,” various choices are either false ones (you’re given the option for Stefan to take LSD or not, but if you decline, he’s drugged against his will) or not really choices at all. When Stefan is presented with psych meds, the viewer is given the option to “throw them away” or “flush them.” Moments like these — as Whitehead winces and grimaces in close-up, waiting for the viewer to deliver a meaningless verdict — make “Bandersnatch’s” claim to grandly advancing what television can do feel a bit tenuous.
Then again, the psych med digression exists down some narrative corridor that many viewers may never go. (Elsewhere in the universe, the viewer can learn more about Stefan’s personal history and his sense of loss around his mother: A motivation, thin as it is.) Noting that many of the choices “Bandersnatch” presents stand out for their dithering lack of advancement of the plot doesn’t take away from the fact that there is ingenuity at work in building out a story that moves in different directions, one presented in an at-first bewildering user experience. There is no running time showing onscreen, and no ability to rewind or fast-forward, rooting the viewer in the moment. And when the story ends, you’re given the option to return to a previous choice made incorrectly, making literal the way many readers used to bookmark key pages in choose-your-own-adventure novels. Credit to “Black Mirror’s” creator Charlie Brooker for, at least, having an idea about how a project like this might work, even as much of it doesn’t.
But too little thought, ultimately, was given to how this plays as television. Beyond the fleeting “whoa” of the viewer-determined narrative, there’s a big, unanswered “why” — a reason for “Bandersnatch” to take this form, or to exist at all. Characters, most especially Poulter’s Colin, in a jarringly miscalibrated performance that’s louder and brasher than the film can bear, deliver Philosophy 101 lectures about the nature of free will. “When you make a decision,” Colin instructs, “you think it’s you doing it, but it’s not. It’s the spirit out there who’s connected to our world that decides what we do and we just have to go along for the ride.”
The best that can be said of this is that it’s, perhaps, a canny reversal of the usual “Black Mirror” formula; usually, the show depicts technology controlling humans, while now, a human is guiding the actions of a set of pixels that looks like Fionn Whitehead. But that’s sunnier than a work that whiffs so badly when it comes to justifying its own existence merits. Elsewhere on television, and elsewhere in “Black Mirror’s” run, grand questions about the nature of our existence have been probed with granular interest and, better, real curiosity. Simply ladling a dose of hackneyed language about determinism atop a work with infinite plots but a half-written story doesn’t cut it.
“Bandersnatch” clearly wants to be seen as a step forward. In the most embarrassing moment I encountered on my journey, the viewer is presented with the option to explain to Stefan that they’re watching him on Netflix, a 21st-century streaming service. Indeed, without Netflix, experimentation of this sort would be impossible, just as without the fictional gaming company within “Bandersnatch,” Stefan would be unemployed. But neither the film nor the game at its center are finished; both are incomplete stories funded in order to make a splash, but ones that give the player no pleasure. But without Netflix and the premium it places on disrupting art forms that were doing just fine otherwise, “Black Mirror” would be putting its energies towards making episodes on par with “San Junipero” or “U.S.S. Callister,” ones with real character, stakes, and ideas about technology and humanity that move beyond the elementary.
The best case, perhaps, for “Bandersnatch” is that it’s remembered along the lines of this year’s film “The Cloverfield Paradox,” released on Netflix in a shock-and-awe surprise post-Super Bowl drop whose revolutionary aspect concealed, for a moment, that the movie was a bomb. Invention solely for its sake is dreary and surprisingly unimaginative; of all the things “Black Mirror” could be doing, this seems, sadly, to have been the wrong path, one the show would be well served by ditching and starting its story as close to completely anew as it can.