Speaking about his father Kingsley’s reaction to his novel Money, that old video-game lover Martin Amis said: “I can point out the exact place where he stopped and sent the book twirling through the air. That’s where the character named Martin Amis comes in. ‘Breaking the rules, buggering about with the reader, drawing attention to himself.’”
There is a moment in Bandersnatch, the new Black Mirror film, released this morning a day after its trailer, that might encourage a similar urge in viewers. The protagonist Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead), a video-game designer in Eighties London, has become convinced his actions are being controlled by sinister outside forces. A message appears on his screen explaining that he is being controlled through Netflix. What’s Netflix, he asks: “It’s like TV, but online. I control it,” replies the message on screen.
Black Mirror, the series created by the sometime-TV critic Charlie Brooker and producer Annabel Jones, has always explored the fallout from current trends in technology and entertainment. This film, a kind of choose-your-own-adventure, is in itself innovative. Using their controller, the viewer makes decisions for Stefan. Depending on what choices you make, you can end up in dead ends or with entirely different endings. Some options are seemingly mundane: what do you have for breakfast, what do you listen to on the bus, while others get horribly dark. The apparent weight of a choice bears little relation to its consequences.
What saves the film from pure gimmickry is the way in which its mechanism is bound up with the plot. It’s the mid-Eighties, and Stefan is trying to make a computer game based on “Bandersnatch”, a novel he finds among the possessions of his mother, who died in a train accident when he was five. The author of “Bandersnatch” is a Philip K Dick-esque writer who was obsessed with conspiracies and eventually murdered his wife.
As Stefan writes the game for software company owner Mohan Tucker (Asim Chaudhry), with guidance from star designer Colin Ritman (Will Poulter), he is drawn into the darkest crannies of his own mind. The script alludes often to ideas about authorial control, free will and fate, as well as referencing other Black Mirror episodes. Stefan’s counselling takes place at the Saint Juniper clinic, while Rickman’s previous hit game stars the dog-like killer drones from last season’s episode “Metalhead”. It’s all very meta.
This kind of interactive storytelling has been tried before, but never in such a visible, sophisticated and mature way. This piece for Wired has some interesting details on the impressive production process. The film had to be created like a game, using decision trees, and filmed as 250 segments with multiple scenes loading simultaneously to avoid buffering.
There are more than two and a half hours of footage in total, but most viewers finish after 60-75 minutes. Most people will not see it all. Giving the viewer agency over incidences of violence and mental breakdown could open new debates about film versus video games. Those who worry about information handed over to big corporations may enjoy the irony that Bandersnatch will give Netflix many millions of data points about what viewers like.
The nagging sense, though, is that for all its laborious construction, most of Bandersnatch’s pleasures are old-fashioned. Most could have been achieved without the interactive mechanism, too. Poulter, in Zodiac killer specs and with peroxided hair, steals most of his scenes. (It’s too soon to accept Chaudhry as anything other than Chabuddy G, but that will come.) Whitehead’s Stefan is strung out and jumpy, as if the pressure to finish his game is pinching every nerve ending individually. The design, which might easily have been a straightforward nostalgia trip for Brooker’s Eighties childhood, is ominous and claustrophobic, while the dialogue is as knowing and smart as we have come to expect.
Having watched the first hour and 20 minutes, I have little desire to return to see what I missed. Brooker says he is OK with that (in general, not about me specifically, though we have a comments section). He is thinking like an open world game designer, who will include plenty of material they know most gamers will never see. Unlike a game, however, narrative is about exclusion. Black Mirror has been successful because it wraps its high-concept sci-fi in taut, twisting, conventional structures.
Questions about whether this is the future of entertainment miss the point. Games will continue to blur with film as methods of distribution converge. Bandersnatch will be fun to argue about at the water cooler, but at its heart poses the old postmodern question: when it comes to breaking the rules, buggering about with the reader, drawing attention to itself, how much is too much?
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