“Bandersnatch,” the interactive “Black Mirror” movie that had its premiere on Netflix last week, has been dissected by the internet, via elaborate flowcharts and spoiler-filled breakdowns of the various endings and endings within endings. (How many endings are there exactly? Even the filmmakers behind it have a hard time coming up with a definitive answer.)
Because of the many ways you can navigate “Bandersnatch,” your opinion of whether it works or not likely depends at least partly on which paths you take.
Here, three critics review their versions of “Bandersnatch,” which is broadly about a video game programmer in the ’80s named Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) who gets a little too immersed in his own creation.
IN ONE TIMELINE OF “BANDERSNATCH,” viewers may choose to reveal themselves to be Netflix, the puppet master pulling the strings of an increasingly disoriented Stefan. This being 1984, Stefan is confused — “What is Netflix?” he wonders. Should you, the viewer, decide to “tell him more,” words appear on his computer screen explaining that Netflix is a streaming service from the 21st century.
And if you choose to offer further explanation, the computer adds: “It’s like TV, but online. I control it.”
It’s a brazenly clever attempt to get viewers to align themselves with the streaming Goliath. It’s also laughable. By the time I reached this point in the story, I felt nothing like in control. In fact, despite the illusion of multiple possibilities, I felt almost as bound to the wills of a faceless entity as Stefan was. The minute choices you get to make, like which album he listens to, read as eye roll-worthy contrivances only a small child would get excited about. But it’s the “decisions” masquerading as free will that are really frustrating.
No matter how many times I opted to “accept” on Stefan’s behalf the job offer from Mohan (Asim Chaudhry), the head of the video game company Tuckersoft, Colin (Will Poulter) informs Stefan that he’s taken the “wrong path.” Then I, the viewer, am forced to return to that scene until I “refuse” — I repeated this act three times to see if the result might shake out differently; it didn’t — but not before replaying a montage of the previous scenes leading up to the offer. It was irritating to be informed, so early into the movie, that if I didn’t follow a specific bread crumb, the adventure would be over.
In another pathway I stumbled upon, I was taken back to a crucial moment in Stefan’s childhood: the day his mother died on a derailed train. A 5-year-old Stefan is unable to find his stuffed rabbit toy minutes before he is supposed to leave for a trip with her. The “Bandersnatch” creators present this moment as a viewer-involved conundrum, for some reason; when she asks him if he’s ready to go, the black part at the bottom of the screen rises up.
But instead of offering a “Yes” or “No” selection, the only “choice” the viewer has is “No.” What is the point of that, exactly?
And yet, as artificial as the construction may be (and as insidious as all the embedded Netflix branding is), I can’t help but admire, just a little bit, this spin on interactive gaming/movie-watching. There were sparks of intrigue and engaging visuals, particularly during Colin and Stefan’s Willy Wonka-ish acid trip.
In a different timeline that doesn’t go down the icky Netflix-is-controlling-you rabbit hole, the meta-fication of Stefan’s loss of autonomy is more subtle and convincing in its attempt to make the viewer feel like a part of the story. (Its premise calls to mind the classic “Twilight Zone” episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” in which it is revealed at the end that a once-friendly neighborhood has devolved into a hysterical mob under the emotional manipulation of aliens.)
And while I was never emotionally invested in Stefan’s journey in the way I was with, say, Bing (Daniel Kaluuya, pre-“Get Out”) in “15 Million Merits,” the “Black Mirror” episode about a secluded society that generates power through stationary bikes, it was a treat to play around with the endings and strands within those endings and exist in a state of rapt attention. (It’s difficult to check your phone or just let it play in the background, lest you miss small details and clues that resurface later, or the chance to “make” a “choice.”)
As storytelling, “Bandersnatch” falls short of the best “Black Mirror” episodes — I was underwhelmed by one particular ending where it’s not all a dream, but rather, a Hollywood set. But as an attempt to play around with your viewing experience, it’s not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.
Also, I’m into “Tangerine Dream” now, so there’s that. — AISHA HARRIS
“BANDERSNATCH” IS FASCINATING, original, staggering in scope — and I still found the whole process stressful and unpleasant, and occasionally just straight-up upsetting. It’s an achievement I admire, but not one I’m all that interested in.
Call me old-fashioned, but I like a good story, and none of the versions of “Bandersnatch” I watched — made? enabled? chose? — had quite enough. I don’t know if this is a failure of my own imagination and decision-making, and if I am therefore panning my own existence in The New York Times. Maybe I am! Maybe this is all part of the big “Black Mirror” plan to make everyone as nihilistic as possible; to remind us that being British is very sad but it’s better than the alternatives; to illuminate the fact that we are just cogs in a machine that produces more machine; that my futile role such that it is will soon be obviated by that exact machine. And have I ever noticed that things that are supposed to bring us closer together actually keep us further apart in some ways, hm?
Anyway, I wanted — thought I wanted? — a story. So on my first pass, I followed the advice of every improv teacher I’ve ever had and sought to make the most emotional choice available. But it often didn’t matter; my choices sometimes just looped back toward a main path, or they didn’t materialize how I’d envisioned. Sure, I told Stefan to “yell at Dad,” but if I were really controlling him, I would also have told him what to yell. I wanted either more control or less. I didn’t want just to declare the outcomes, I wanted to influence the motivations. Otherwise the outcomes have no grounding, no purpose. Unlike a physical “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, I could never tell how far I was from the end, and thus how far I was from the beginning, and so I could never cogently construct a narrative arc that made sense for pacing or structure.
Even when I replayed — rewatched? reselected? — “Bandersnatch” for a few other passes, I was torn between competing goals: one, to create the most interesting “episode,” and two, to find the deepest, most secret pathways to see if I could trick the show or myself. This tension between meaningful narrative and tricksterism resulted in the worst, least joyous aspects of both. Perhaps this is how the writers of “Westworld” feel.
I don’t think “Bandersnatch” is an episode or a movie, and I’ve seen it described elsewhere as a video game, but it’s more of an ecosystem, and not all of “Bandersnatch” is “Bandersnatch” itself: It also relies heavily on the internet response machine (which this article is also part of). I suppose there are people who will play through the story, reach the end credits option, and then just go on with their lives, not deigning to do even a cursory search online, but I can’t really picture it.
I knew as soon as I finished that I could find a Talmud’s worth of dissections of every possible selection, perhaps an oral history of how the project came together, a full walk-through of how to get to however many endings there were, maybe a personality quiz to tell me what kind of person I am based on whether I ever poured tea on the computer. (I could never.)
That material is not auxiliary, even if Netflix and the “Black Mirror” team didn’t create it. The response is as essential as the product — which Stefan himself thinks, since he’s more focused on that one TV review segment about games than on any other kind of feedback, or even just his own sense of satisfaction. His own death (I got there a few times) is less significant than the rating his game gets. I think “Black Mirror” knows this is bad, but I’m not sure.
I am sure that “Bandersnatch” is incredibly clever and cool, and like anyone or anything incredibly clever and cool, that makes it a little remote and hard to love, better from afar than up close. — MARGARET LYONS
WATCHING TELEVISION USED TO INVOLVE turning on an appliance to escape existential dread. Now TV is a tidal wave of content that often reminds us how frightening life can be, and the clashing worldviews displayed by powerful news networks never let us forget there is no shared reality we can all agree upon. Fun times!
It makes a person long for a procedural marathon on the most basic of basic cable networks. That is not what you’ll get with “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch,” but this Netflix offering’s problems have nothing to do with its unusual form. “Bandersnatch” is a shiny package with bells and whistles on the outside and a whole lot of nothing on the inside. Maybe it’s for people who already thought the streaming service’s dramas were too long, repetitive and crammed with filler but wanted more control over that meandering experience. Fun times?
In “Bandersnatch,” two choices frequently appear under the screen. Should Stefan breakfast on Sugar Puffs or Frosties? Choose well — lives depend on it!
Or do they? Few decisions within this mechanical creation felt momentous. The longer I messed around with “Bandersnatch,” the more I felt pummeled by the relentless flogging of its least subtle theme: We have little or no control over our lives and our individual choices don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Well, O.K., I also went through that doom-laden phase of sophomore year.
But unlike “Halt and Catch Fire,” a thoughtful tech drama set in the same era, or the philosophical comedy “The Good Place,” all “Bandersnatch” really has is an elaborate scheme. And as it shepherds a number of story lines toward plots that involve murder or suicide (which doesn’t make “Bandersnatch” all that different from most procedurals and prestige dramas), it keeps calling attention to its superficial takes on Important Ideas in a grandiose manner that makes the meta episodes of Dan Harmon’s “Community” seem restrained.
Stefan lives with mental illness and has trouble admitting his attempt to adapt his favorite multiple-pathway novel into a video game is going awry. Writing certainly can be demoralizing, especially in conjunction with other challenges, but “Bandersnatch” gestures at these issues without exploring them with depth or nuance. For this whiz-bang experiment to work, I needed to care about the choices Stefan made — including the options I picked for him. But I found it quite possible to click through the pathways in “Bandersnatch” without finding a reason for any version of this story to exist. Netflix could make “Bandersnatch,” so it did, because … Netflix.
“Bandersnatch” does quickly establish that Stefan is so estranged from his father (Craig Parkinson) that they might as well exist on different planes of reality, despite occupying the same house. Stefan is stuck inside a loop of grief and anger regarding his mother’s death and his father’s role in that event. If you muddle through “Bandersnatch” hoping Stefan will meaningfully confront his father or work through any psychological wounds, I sincerely wish you luck. During my two-hour session, the questions at the heart of the story rarely played out in poignant or fruitful ways. Like social-media companies, “Bandersnatch” outsources decision-making and curation to its customers and then apparently expects to be congratulated for its dereliction of duty.
At least “Bandersnatch” had some pathways that ended up being hilarious (unintentionally, I think). Just before the conclusion of my first trip through — a pathway that ended with a random martial arts scene followed by Stefan’s dad trying to get his frantic son under control — “Bandersnatch” offered something truly unexpected: A cringe-inducing sequence that felt like a commercial for Netflix itself.
Perhaps it was supposed to be a cheeky in-joke, but that section was more like a big old piece of cheese sitting at the end of a tedious maze. So “Bandersnatch” is a dystopian saga with a subtext about the danger of allowing our technological overlords to monitor and control us — and it includes a clunky promo for a Silicon Valley behemoth bent on world domination?
Is my laughter exhausted or ironic? You decide. — MAUREEN RYAN