Friday night at midnight Pacific Time, Netflix, after some intriguing teasing, debuted a special episode of its Emmy-winning, British-born sci-fi anthology "Black Mirror."
Coming between its completed fourth and recently announced fifth seasons and entitled "Bandersnatch," like the "frumious" creature Lewis Carroll advises shunning in "Jabberwocky," it is a feature-length interactive episode, an adventure game about an adventure game.
Set in 1984, when floppy-disk-based text-and-graphics games offered a less fancy but structurally similar version of what "Red Dead Redemption" and "Assassin's Creed" offer now, it stars Fionn Whitehead as Stefan Butler, a young programmer adapting for gaming a thick, not-for-children, choose-your-own-adventure novel, also called "Bandersnatch," whose author was supposed to have cut off his wife's head. He will interact significantly with his father (Craig Parkison); Colin Ritman (Will Poulter), a successful game creator with a psychedelic turn of mind; and his therapist (Alice Lowe). Series creator Charlie Brooker wrote it; David Slade directed.
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As nearly everything in “Bandersnatch” is a spoiler, I will be stingy with detail. I will say right off the bat that it’s admirably executed, tightly organized, well-thought-through and a lot of fun, if not particularly frightening or profound. The interactive mechanics are splendidly handled and designed; it runs seamlessly, whatever path you take.
You begin with insignificant choices (what cereal to eat, what cassette tape to play in your Walkman — hello, 1980s!) before moving on to more crucial ones that lead off into various corridors, perhaps to circle back on themselves or head off to new junctions leading to further forks in the road. As in Stefan's game — most everything in the story mirrors or comments on the narrative game you are playing — there is a time limit on choosing that puts subtle pressure on the viewer. (If you don't choose within the graphically represented time limit, the choice is made for you.)
At first I decided just to choose all the left-hand options, but soon enough I began participating more fully, either to try to make the story go faster or to resist the quicker ending, or just to go exploring. Of course — and this is a point "Bandersnatch" is smart enough to make itself — you may feel that you are running things, with your click of the mouse, but you are not at all. The whole thing has been arranged, but in a complicated way to give the illusion of control. Maybe that's a metaphor for life. It’s a theme of the film, in any case.
One reckons pretty quickly that the point of the story-as-game / game-as-story is to get a good review for the video game Stefan is making. There are endings that will deliver you to the final credits, though there are also junctures where you are offered the choice of jumping to the credits yourself. (There are payoffs for playing through — "watching" doesn't seem the right word — to a “real” finish. And you can get there too while missing whole branches of the story/stories.)
Of course, you can jump out whenever you want, just by turning off Netflix. It’s possible to run in circles long enough that the thing becomes tiresome — like video games! — and at some point you may just want to get it over with; I suppose that is another metaphor for life. The jump-ahead-10-seconds button (not a metaphor for, or available in, life) is also useful when material repeats; sometimes the show, when you have circled back around to an earlier point, will fast-forward itself, helpfully.
Most, I think, will find it a potato chip show — if you watch it once, you will want to watch it more than once, just to take apart the puzzle. As diverting as it is, “Bandersnatch” doesn't function particularly well as horror. Minus the decorative filigree, and the multiple roads from beginning to end(s), it's a familiar sort of tale, of crumbling sanity and seemingly unavoidable fate. (You can opt to get Stefan mentally healthy, but it comes with a price.) The wrong turns and detours and the decision-making itself take some force out of the narrative.
Almost everything that happens and much of what’s said in “Bandersnatch” comments on its own structure — it is meta as heck and puts an original spin on breaking the fourth wall — or on video game conventions (watch for Colin on Pac-Man). It’s “Tron” for the multiverse. Though they are constant and intentionally obvious, the references are generally clever and often very funny. There is a shaggy dog aspect to one endgame that, while a kind of joke, is perhaps the most satisfying and trenchant trick "Bandersnatch" has up its roomy sleeve. I can’t say I’ve seen them all.
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‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under 17)