The Beginning of a New Era of Film?
by Marty Gatto
When I first watched Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch I was stunned. I sat trembling in my easy chair not in fear of the film at hand but in excitement towards the idea of it. For Bandersnatch was something new, something creative and unexpected, that directly changed the rules of engagement between viewer and film to its advantage. In discussing Bandersnatch, however, I encountered a number of problems. In general, the film is dense. As a choose-your-own-adventure movie, it has tons of scenes that provide an overlapping and scattered timeline. Furthermore, the film is ambitious. With an interface that allows the viewer to choose between the various actions of its main character, the viewer is forced to customize the sequence and content of scenes. Truly, Bandersnatch is unlike any film we have seen before.
The novelty seems to be the main source of the hype around the film, and, while I absolutely believe Bandersnatch should be praised superlatively for its innovation, I think its originality can distract from its actual content. We must ask: Was it a good film? If we forget to ask this, the innovation that once caught the public eye will be reduced to one among many shiny objects that comprise the entertainment industry today. That’s not to say I’m arguing for more choose-your-own-adventure movies to be made. Rather, I am arguing in favor of any film that rethinks the norms of filmmaking through whichever means yield a good product.
This returns us to our question: Is Bandersnatch a good film? I’ll start by considering the general style and narrative. Stefan Butler is a young coder trying to make a choose-your-own-adventure style video game. Set in the 80’s, his idea is meant to be rather promising. The game, however, is an adaptation of a novel, which ultimately drove its author to insanity and murder. Stefan, likewise, meets similar ends.
With a soundtrack like strangely innocuous arcade music, along with several moments of pure 80’s sounds, contrasting color schemes for many scenes, and a CGI riddled acid trip, Bandersnatch delivers on a sensory level. This is a common thread with products of Black Mirror, and while they may seem aesthetically indulgent, it pays off in the form of viewer immersion. Immersion, however, is brought to another level by the choose-your-own-adventure format of Bandersnatch.
In fact, it seems much of what feels immersive about Bandersnatch comes from its viewer having to make choices. The irony in this, as seen in the only ending in which Stefan’s game receives a 5- star rating, is in the fact that the viewer has no choice as to whether or not she has a choice. She may in fact wish she had no choice, especially when it comes to picking the lesser of two evils (like bury or chop up the body). As Stefan tells his therapist in the “perfect game” outcome, much like the film, the game needed only the “illusion of choice.”
It might next be useful to consider it in terms of other Black Mirror episodes. Most episodes of Black Mirror, with several exceptions, are riddled with a surreal quietness often complemented by sudden eventfulness. Bandersnatch is certainly eventful, but in being so eventful it loses the meditativeness I consider to be a strength. You could even say the film is cluttered. While this largely reflects the cluttered mind of Stefan, the indeterminable sequence of scenes and choices means that the film is constantly cluttered. There is no progression or build-up aside from the first fifteen minutes where choices are simple.
Furthermore, because the viewer always has to be paying attention as to whether or not another choice must be made (lest it be made for you after 10 seconds), they are placed almost forcibly in a state of fixation. This is unusual considering we typically watch Netflix as inattentively or attentively as we want. The consequence of frequent choices having to be made by the viewer, then, is a heightened immersion with lower agency.
In this vein, coming out of the film feels like suddenly finding you’ve escaped a maze. Rather than the normal I-just-finished-a-movie feeling, or in addition to it, one feels notes of confusion, frustration, and, in my case, lack of complete satisfaction. That’s not to say the film wasn’t satisfying, it was, but not completely. In considering whether or not Bandersnatch is a good film, we have to consider whether or not Bandersnatch can even be called a complete or finished film. How can a movie that has any number of endings truly be said to have one? Obviously, you can make a number of cases regarding this question. My point, however, is not to argue that this movie has no ending, but to point out that this question is more complicated for Bandersnatch than for other movies. What was once a yes or no question (is it a finished film?) is at least debatable.
This is ultimately because the format of the film is unique to Bandersnatch. It makes answering questions about it quite difficult. Whether or not it is a good film is more complicated than yes or no. It is a two-sided coin: on the one hand, the film is creative, surprising and engaging. Its obvious differences in format seem the only serious adversary. On the other hand, the film operates on its own rules, is fundamentally structured differently than any movie I’ve ever seen before, and beckons us to try a new way of experiencing film. Is it right to criticize it for not giving us the same type of satisfaction that a good film normally gives us? Maybe if a viewer isn’t satisfied, she should try again.