The Netflix film asks viewers to make choices on behalf of the characters, altering the narrative accordingly.

Black Mirror Bandersnatch review This tumble through the looking glass is brilliant
Flix Netflix Thursday, January 03, 2019 - 11:49

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is the next instalment in the pathbreaking Black Mirror series now streaming on Netflix. Directed by David Slade and written by Charlie Brooker, this ‘interactive film’ begins with a robotic female voice explaining the basic premise of choosing between two options when prompted using the device you are watching it on. Once you click Yes to say you have understood, the film takes you to England in 1984, where Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead), is hoping to sell a game he has created based on Bandersnatch, a fictional book by writer Jerome F Davies.

The book has been written to allow for multiple outcomes, depending on choices made by individual readers, giving them control of the narrative. Stefan’s struggles with writing code for the various paths that will mirror the possibilities of the book and each setback pushes his already fragile mental condition to the brink. Stefan is hoping to sell his game to Tuckersoft, a gaming company that employs the famous Colin Ritman (Will Poulter) a programmer Stefan idolises. In addition to Colin and the Tuckersoft head Mr Thakur (Asim Chaudhary), we meet Stefan’s father Peter (Craig Parkinson) and Butler's therapist, Dr Haynes (Alice Lowe) who soon become the villains or victims of his delusions, depending on how you view the film.

As we watch him descend into a world of delusions, the film asks us to make choices for Stefan at regular intervals. It starts off quite harmlessly, by asking to choose what breakfast cereal he will have, but the stakes rise as the story unfolds, creating life and death scenarios. Each choice alters the narrative and impacts the final conclusion of the film. There are, at last count, a minimum of nine possible endings based on the series of choices the viewer makes, some quite a damp squib, while others more gruesome and fatalistic. While it ruminates with existential angst on the existence of multiple parallel realities and the illusion of free will, the film also retains the concerns of the series about screens and how they are controlling the human perception of reality.

Stefan is creating a video game and spends hours in front of a computer, while also listening to programmes on television which seemingly feed his mania. The whole idea of interactive content where consumers make choices for creators is an allusion to Instagram stories where people often ask their followers to make a choice for them or take a poll to find out what they would like to see next or more of. The lines blurring between reality and delusion around Stefan is also a significant concern in modern times, as people create an increasingly curated reality on social media, deriving their sense of self-worth and identity from the patronage of unknown strangers.

Writer and series creator Charlie Brooker also makes clever references to the life and work of real-life authors like Philip K Dick (who is the inspiration for mentally unstable author Jerome Davies) and the eternally inspiring Lewis Carroll. The Bandersnatch is a character from Carroll’s 1872 book Through the Looking Glass and Stephan’s illustration has a definite resemblance to early illustrations of the creature. Stefan, like Alice (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), wants to find a missing white rabbit, here an important link to his mother’s death. Colin invites Stefan to his house where he spikes his tea causing him to have drug-induced hallucinations, likening it to the Mad Hatter's tea party, but not before he meets Kitty, Colin’s girlfriend who is dressed to resemble the Mad Hatter.

Stefan in one of his delusions, actually steps through a mirror like Alice, going ‘through the looking glass’ into his childhood. But unlike a magical world that Alice finds, he ends up tragically altering his destiny.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is a fantastic effort and definitely one that promises a lot more experimentation with how films are made. However, the pauses for us to choose an option start getting weary and repetitive by the end. Especially if, like me, you have to watch the same set of scenes thrice before you realise that “wrong path mate” is basically Colin telling the viewer to pick the other option. The performances by the main cast are fairly one dimensional and there are no layers or dimensions to their personalities. Stefan is paranoid and twitchy, Colin is mysterious and delusional, the father and therapist are worried, and Colin’s mother whose death is the reason for his fragile state is seen in just one scene repeatedly.

While the execution from option selection to scene continuity is flawless, thanks a technological modification by Netflix to its platform, the story itself leaves the viewer underwhelmed emotionally. Perhaps this is intentional, intended to make us feel the frustration that the characters feel when they realise that their supposed control of reality through free will was only an illusion. Perhaps like Mr PacMan in the game, we are programmed and controlled by forces beyond our understanding, escaping from one maze only to find ourselves stuck in another. Step through the looking glass and watch this film; it will take you down a rabbit hole, but it's worth the tumble.

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