Look, I’m going to be real with you: this is a movie blog, and Bandersnatch, the so-called “interactive Netflix film” from Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series, is coming right up against the boundaries of what a movie actually is. I’m going to give this review my best shot, but you’re going to have to bear with me here, because this film is more than even genre-bending – it’s entire medium-bending. Alright, let’s give this our best shot.
Bandersnatch is an interactive movie, a choose-your-own adventure that allows viewers to engage with the plot and characters via a selection of point-and-click story options. It follows the basic story of Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), a young games designer in the early 1980s, who is invited to meet with a visionary designer (Will Poulter, rounding out an excellent roster of performances with another brilliant turn) to push forward the production of Bandersnatch, his adventure game based on a ground-breaking novel of the same name. However, as the film unfolds, it becomes clear that Stefan’s mental state is far from healthy, and that we, the viewers, may have something to do with that.
Bandersnatch is, and I don’t say this lightly, an utterly original creation. Taking complete advantage of the media streaming boom that has changed the way we interact with television, only a show like Black Mirror could really pull this off – the slippery, exploratory relationship with technology leaves this unsettling hybrid feeling like a natural step forward for the series, rather than leaning too hard on the gimmicky aspect of a creation like this one.
Obviously, it’s difficult to talk about the actual story in place in Bandersnatch because there are so many different paths for the tale to take, rendering it one of the most instantly rewatchable movies in recent memory. I can only really talk about the stories that I got to excavate over the course of my three-hour dalliance with this, and I can firmly say that I liked them well enough – I’m not sure that much of the story would have stood up without the interactivity element attached, but since it is present, that’s kind of a moot point. The beauty of interactive media is that it forces us to engage with characters and stories in a way that simply watching it doesn’t – Black Mirror, last season, felt as though it was running a little short on story ideas, but Bandersnatch papers over those cracks with an innovative new presentation.
Even aside from the central gimmick, this is a well-made movie – David Slade directs, and manages to create a fundamentally unsetttled style amongst the interlocking storylines. Fionn Whitehead has a hell of a task in front of him in leading something this enormous, but he just about manages to pull it off, supported by excellent performances from Craig Parkinson as his father and Alice Lowe as his therapist, as well as the superb Will Poulter, adorned with a bleachtop and an irresistibly geeky drawl. The 80s setting is packed with loving references to music and games from the period,
But it’s the new presentation allows for this movie to go to places I’ve never really seen a story go before. While games like Until Dawn have rocked the interactive movie notion before, this one actively involves the viewer in the horror they’re enacting on the lead character. It’s one thing to suggest that the viewer is complicit in some kind of questionable voyeurism (as in movies like Funny Games), but it’s quite another to declare them the main antagonist. The way the narrative/s are constructed lets the story delve into notions of free will and control in a very visceral fashion, building to a deeply unsettling denouement that redefines the meaning of the word “meta”.
Honestly, the best thing I can say about this film is that you should go play-watch it yourself. It’s one of the most interesting presentations of the form I’ve seen in years, and it really has to be experienced to wrap your head around exactly what this new take on the genre offers. Bold, brave, and often brilliant, Bandersnatch is a beautifully layered, lovingly crafted, and truly innovative take on what movies can be, and where online media can take us.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image courtesy of USA Today)