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Navigating what to say about Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is nearly as difficult as navigating the film itself. How do you adequately review a film or even describe its plot when each person can have a completely different viewing experience and outcome, depending on the choices they make throughout the film?
DIRECTOR: David Slade
The “interactive film” finds ‘Black Mirror’ trying something different ahead of its official season 5 premiere.
Of course, alternate endings notwithstanding, it is always possible to have a different experience than someone else. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that Black Mirror’s new interactive film revolves around a young man whose perception of reality slips further and further as the story progresses. The film introduces viewers to protagonist Stefan Butler (Dunkirk’s Fionn Whitehead) in 1984, where he is developing a game called Bandersnatch, based on his favorite book. Like the book, the game is to be a choose-your-own-adventure story, where the outcome differs based on the players’ choices. Stefan meets with software company Tuckersoft, which offers to help him finish his game and release it. But following a fateful night with Tuckersoft’s premier game programmer, Colin Ritman (Will Poulter), the events of Stefan’s life begin to blur together with the game, and his grasp on his own sanity starts to loosen.
That’s pretty much all one can say about the plot of Bandersnatch without going into detail about their decisions. The film allows viewers to make choices that impact Stefan’s story. Usually, two options will pop up onscreen. Sometimes they are small things, like what kind of cereal Stefan is going to eat for breakfast. Other times, the choices are major, like whether to jump off a roof or not. And other times still, I suspect, major choices actually have a minor impact, while little ones have huge consequences.
If you fail to choose quickly enough, the film will continue without your help, which may be the purest way to watch Bandersnatch, at least for reviewing purposes. I did not do that, though I can’t say my choices followed any particular pattern. Sometimes I chose what seemed like the more exciting option, and sometimes I took the path I thought would have the best outcome for Stefan. Yet as many who have already watched Bandersnatch know, sometimes it doesn’t matter which option you choose. It’s clear based on my initial viewing that some storylines are inevitable, regardless of your choices. It’s also possible to get stuck in a loop, wherein you make the “wrong” choice several times and end up watching the same scene over and over again.
Black Mirror fans will notice a few easter eggs nodding to previous episodes, but there’s a meta layer here that goes beyond mere references. The whole thing contains musings on time and the nature of choice. Besides sharing its name with Stefan’s game, Bandersnatch also mentions Netflix directly. In one scenario (mild spoiler alert), Stefan even seems to step off the set of a movie and realize he’s being filmed.
Bandersnatch is simultaneously unlike anything Black Mirror has done before, and maybe the epitome of what creator Charlie Brooker has been writing about for the past few years. It’s not the first piece of entertainment to attempt something like this: Last year, Steven Soderbergh’s Mosaic gave the audience the opportunity to choose which storylines they wanted to follow, and in what order (though they all eventually ended up at the same place). But what makes Bandersnatch unique is its relationship to Black Mirror’s central theme. It wasn’t so long ago that this was another anthology series, in which Brooker told cynical cautionary tales about technology. But Bandersnatch would literally not be possible without the technology we have today. Whether that’s a sign of embrace or defeat on Brooker’s part, I’m not sure, but the final layer of meta-irony to this film is that it makes the viewer feel as if they’re in an episode of Black Mirror themselves.
Ultimately, Bandersnatch is a thrilling experience. I am anxious to revisit it, though it’s not the kind of thing I would want to watch all the time. Considering early excitement, this probably won’t be the only interactive story Netflix offers to viewers. If that’s the case, this “movie/television as a game” approach could be either the future of streaming entertainment, or just a clever gimmick—or possibly both.
Need more ideas? Here are our Netflix guides for the best war movies, documentaries, anime, indie flicks, true crime, food shows, gangster movies, Westerns, and movies based on true stories streaming right now. There are also sad movies guaranteed to make you cry, weird movies to melt your brain, and standup specials when you really need to laugh. Or check out Flixable, a search engine for Netflix.
Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.