REVIEW: Black Mirror’s BANDERSNATCH is a true achievement

Black Mirror, from its inception, has been a cut above the rest of the sci-fi offerings you can find on TV. There are some good shows to discover but few have been as sharply focused, as cinematic, and certainly as brazen and ballsy as the British anthology series. The show which began on British Television before being picked up by Netflix is the closest thing to a true Twilight Zone successor we’ve had since Rod Serling’s sci-fi masterpiece ended a generation ago.

Unlike Twilight Zone, however, which took a scatter-shot approach to topical commentary, Black Mirror focuses almost exclusively on technology. The show examines how we interact with tech, typically of the handheld (or wearable) kind, what kind of people a fully-integrated and electronically-enhanced life is creating, and what the drawbacks are. Rarely do the episodes offer a happy ending (but when it does it’s magical); usually each stand-alone episode ends with a bleak picture of the world we are rapidly racing toward, where our dependence on technology will be the ruin of us all.

It’s a great show.

Because of the nature of the concept, Black Mirror episodes are set (one way or another) in the future; that’s necessary due to so much “futuristic” tech being highlighted in each episode. Now comes a “special event” episode, Bandersnatch, seemingly (depending on which ending you stumble upon) set entirely in the mid-1980s. So where is the crazy new tech?

You’re holding it.

The remote in your hand as you watch the episode is the future because this episode is the first (to my knowledge) “Choose Your Own Adventure” TV episode in history.

As a kid, I used to love CYOA books. I had mystery books, sci-fi books, even one based on Super Mario Bros. It felt like READING a video game, which sounds far more boring than it ended up being. The closest I ever came to recreating that experience in some other medium was with the old Dragon’s Lair game, which used Don Bluth’s animation to make it seem like you were “playing” an animated movie.

Now comes this thing, which is basically “Dragon’s Lair the Game the Movie.”

I…I have no idea how to classify this.

At times it felt like watching a movie, at times it felt like playing a game. It was unlike anything I’ve done before. Typically with a TV show we’re passive, relaxed, vegging out in our chair or couch, etc, but here you have to be Johnny on the spot because when those options pop up and you don’t pick one, the show will pick for you, and even though the song “Relax, don’t do it” is a recurring one, you actually can’t just relax and not choose, because the auto-choices sometimes are the wrong ones that will lead to a “wrong ending.”

Like any CYOA book there are choices big and small, some of which are legitimately consequential, and some that aren’t. There are decisions that will lead to an ending, even a mostly-satisfactory one, while others cut off abruptly and give you the option to go back and try again. Someone not familiar with the medium might see this as frustrating, since the movie is essentially funneling you through a handful of choices, and even when you screw up it simply puts you back a few steps earlier and tells you to try again. That’s the way those books work, however.

If you want to complain that you’re not really “choosing” your “own” adventure and that you only have the illusion of choice…well, you obviously we’re paying attention, since the movie’s script leans into this, making the illusion of choice the centerpiece of the plot.

In fact, there were times when the story seemed to “reset” and give me the chance to redo a decision and I didn’t realize I had screwed up or if that loop was just part of the story. That, plus some really tight editing, makes this a movie you will have to revisit countless times, not only to fully experience but also to fully appreciate. There are countless little easter eggs hidden all over, some in the background (the name of the Psychiatrist’s office is Saint Junipero’s) and some put right there in plain sight (it can’t be a coincidence that the “branching path” logo is the same as the White Bear logo from a previous episode…or maybe it can).

If I have a complaint it’s that, when you strip away the various branching paths and just consider any of the handful of “true” endings (not just what I think is the official and proper “ending” featuring a game programmer in the future), the movie itself, when viewed as one conventional story is really pedestrian. It lacks that extra bit of magic that most Black Mirror episodes have. But maybe that’s me not being fair: That extra bit of magic is the interactive element to it. Take the time-hopping out of San Junipero and you’re left with a paint-by-numbers romance story. Take the twist ending out of Shut up and Dance and it’s just a bleak and too nihilistic story. You need those extra bits of je ne sais quoi for it to be a Black Mirror episode and this one has it.

It just has it in a way that’s never been done before.

Fans have been eagerly awaiting the next season of this great show, and to tide us over they’ve given us a single episode that will take us just as long to through as a traditional eight-episode season. The story may be a little bland and hopefully future CYOA movies will be attempted that continue to improve on what Bandersnatch has done, but as it is, this is a true achievement. For the first time since the invention of DVR and the ability to pause and rewind live TV, we have a new way to interact with what we watch at home.

Bravo

10/10 – A ninety-minute movie that will take you hours more to get through, Bandersnatch is a remarkable proof of concept fittingly achieved by one of TV’s best shows.

Highly recommended (watch it with friends with time to devote to it!)

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