Netflix’s special episode of its Emmy-winning sci-fi anthology "Black Mirror” arrived Friday after some intriguing teasing and lots of hype. "Bandersnatch," is many things: a feature-length interactive episode, an adventure game about an adventure game, a very long movie if you opt to run down all its narrative corridors or a short jaunt if you take an early offered exit.
Set in 1984 in the relative infancy of video games, it stars Fionn Whitehead as Stefan Butler, a young programmer who’s already grappling with his own mental state when he attempts to adapt a not-for-children adventure novel whose author was supposed to have cut off his wife's head. In this film by series creator Charlie Brooker and directed by David Slade, the troubled Stefan interacts with his father (Craig Parkison), his therapist (Alice Lowe) and the successful game creator with a psychedelic turn of mind, Colin Ritman (Will Poulter). Their fate is in your hands. Proceed with caution, and plenty of coffee.
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Wrong path, go back. Choose Robert Lloyd’s review if you want a less cranky take on Netflix’s first interactive film.
No matter if you’re the main character of “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” or the viewer/player, free will is an illusion in this technological nightmare of a drama where time is subjective and narratives overlap like a layers-thick dish of scalloped potatoes.
Audiences supposedly decide the fate of unhinged game developer Stefan as he spirals into madness while making his choose-your-own-adventure game for the fictional company Tuckersoft.
The remote or mouse or game controller is in your hands, so by clicking one of two choices at the bottom of the screen, you make decisions for Stefan from the benign — Which cereal for breakfast? Which cassette, the Thompson Twins or “Now 2”? — to the serious. Bury or chop up the body?
But don’t get too cocky. No matter where you click in this streaming experiment that assumes its audience has ample time to burn, all paths lead to a dark and unsettling conclusion. This is, after all, part of the feel-bad “Black Mirror” franchise.
It’s a gimmick to be sure, which might be fun and nostalgic for those who played these types of games in the now-halcyon ’80s or younger viewers who imagine how fun it must have been to manipulate those clumsy, crude images with something called a joystick. But for the rest of us, the act of having to pay close attention, keep your finger on the button, click an option, then be told you need to go back, is about as enjoyable as a mandatory workplace ethics training video: “Was it appropriate for Stacy’s boss to ask her on a date and then fire her when she refused? Yes or No?”
That’s not to say Netflix’s pliable film is boring. It’s not. It’s clever, self-aware, well-made and engaging until you’re sent back to an earlier timeline, over and over, then made to relive similar scenarios, over and over. It’s just … frustrating. Especially when you click on one choice and it gives you the other. Either your remote’s batteries are dying, or you too are being controlled. Spooky or exasperating? You decide, of course. Sigh.
If you do try to watch “Bandersnatch” on a dumb TV where the interactive options aren’t an option, up pops a mock “Star Trek” drama starring Jimmi Simpson (Westworld) from the series’ season four episode “USS Callister,” which in itself is amusing. But if you want to play, you’re required to sign in on a smarter device. And now Netflix knows there’s a PS4 player in your home, or another laptop, or iPad, exemplifying the “Black Mirror” series themes of intrusive, high-tech overload.
Characters in this narrative-leaping drama comment on the nature of the production throughout. They’ll question their own decisions, tell Stefan he can’t change time through hindsight (but you can!), and he’ll wonder aloud if a higher force is controlling what he ate for breakfast. “I feel like I’m not in control, like someone else is!,” he frets. Cunning or glib? Click one but don’t assume your selection matters.
Television requires making way too many choices already. Why make it harder after we’ve finally settled on which program to watch? I know, one more question to answer. The work never ends.
The ultimate answer: Click “stop” and opt for more passive programming.
‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’
When: Any time
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)