I watched this on Friday and MY GOODNESS. I need to talk about it. This is new, bold, exciting, and may change the way we view film and TV from now on.
The premise of Bandersnatch, (set in an ironically significant 1984), is that the main character, Stefan, is developing a game based on a fantasy book in which you can choose different options in order to form your own storyline. The author of this book Bandersnatch, Jerome F. Davies, famously ended up insane and decapitated his own wife. Stefan has the chance to develop his game for a big company.
And that’s as much as I can tell you because what happens is up to you. During scenes, two options pop up and you must decide the focus of the plot by guiding Stefan’s behaviour and actions. We start with the basics: choose what Stefan has for breakfast, Sugar Puffs or Frosties. Then, as you would expect from having watched any previous Black Mirror episode, the decisions get tougher, the plot more serious, the options darker. You’ll find yourself considering whether Frosties really was the best way to start Stefan’s day.
A glaring metaphor echoes throughout Bandersnatch, (if you choose similar options as I did), due to one particular scene with Colin Ritman, the well-known games developer, (brilliantly played by Will Poulter). Colin makes an LSD-fuelled speech about messages embedded within every game, stating that the PAC in Pac-Man stands for Program and Control:
“He’s the Program and Control man. The whole thing’s a metaphor, he thinks he’s got free will but really he’s trapped in a maze, in a system – all he can do is consume, he’s pursued by demons that are probably just in his own head, and even if he does manage to escape by slipping out one side of the maze, what happens? He comes right back in the other side. People think it’s a happy game, it’s not a happy game, it’s a f*cking nightmare world, and the worst thing is it’s real and we live in it.”
Bandersnatch is undoubtedly a maze, as Colin describes. I think it’s safe to say that, in an Inception-like way, not only is Stefan the ‘Pac-Man’ of this situation, being controlled as he believes by some external force, (that force being us), but so are we. If we can play Bandersnatch, then it can also play us, and very early on it does seem to do this. I watched the film with four friends and after choosing what we judged to be the better option of the two for Stefan, we were proven wrong. We were eventually taken back to the same scene, to make a different decision. We thought we were being clever and purposefully chose the same option again. Obviously that’s not how Bandersnatch is to be played. We thought we were ‘slipping out of the maze’ but we were once again transported back to the scene, manipulated into choosing the other option in order to ‘unlock’, as it were, the rest of the film’s content and pathways.
Being ‘played’ isn’t all bad once you’re past that initial hurdle. If you’re curious enough to view most, (or all), of the different pathways in Bandersnatch, then the insidious confusion and at times ridiculousness of Stefan’s various storylines is a welcome treat. The running time of the film, when you come to the end of your first chosen pathway, is around an hour and a half. I think my friends and I racked it up to double that time; we kept clicking on the options presented at the end of each version of Stefan’s story until the final credits rolled. We wanted to find out what happened if we hadn’t chosen to ‘follow Colin’ or ‘shout at Dad’. Without wanting to spoil too much, we stumbled upon a fourth-wall-breaking moment that was quite special, and brought an Orwellian feeling to the forefront.
After viewing Bandersnatch I was reminded of fanfiction and all its possibilities. Normally, viewing of characters in film and TV is limited within directorial and written constraints. Fanfiction allows a new space to be created for these characters; whether you are a writer or reader of fanfiction, you are driven by a want to see beyond what the characters have already done on-screen. You wish to explore these characters exhibiting different behaviours and reacting to new stimulants and situations.
Bandersnatch does not have any of the conventional constraints of film and TV. It is its own type of fanfiction, really. I admire Charlie Brooker’s boldness in creating such diversity and even contradiction within his writing, because I’ve always believed a peculiar kind of selfishness is attached to writers, (of course I’m including myself here). There’s the ever-present mentality of ‘these are my characters and I’ll direct where they’re headed‘, even when you do have help with writing along the way. Brooker has let go of this mentality with Bandersnatch, and I think we may thank him for his selflessness.
For the record, I’m not saying all film and TV should be like this from now on. We’d never have the time to live our own lives. But it does herald an exciting future for script writers and film makers who wish to explore the same kind of path as Bandersnatch, if you’ll pardon the awful pun. Being granted some free will and the choice to guide the action of what we’re seeing may also teach us more about our own viewing preferences, and what it is we wish to gain from them.
Rarely has anything on Netflix deserved more than two viewings in a row, but with Bandersnatch, I tell you to view it as many times as humanly possible. Choose your options well. Then choose again. Then change your mind. Get weird. Get deep. Enjoy. Then scour the internet for theories, hidden meanings, ways of watching, and fascinating facts about the filming process, like I’m about to do…