Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror returned to Netflix on Friday and, appropriately enough for the boundary-breaking sci-fi mind bender, it did so a little differently – as an interactive film called Bandersnatch.
"What's an interactive film?" you ask. Well, think of the Choose Your Own Adventure multiple choice story books of your childhood, and put it on a TV screen. At regular points in the story, viewers are asked to make a decision with their mouse or trackpad, and that decision affects where the story goes next.
The bad news is that the show doesn't work with Apple TV, Chromecast or "some older smart TVs." The good news, for Apple TV viewers at least, is that you can watch and control the action on a Macbook and airstream it to your TV. I can't speak personally for the other platforms, but Netflix says it's confident every subscriber will have a device they can watch on in their home, even if that may mean sacrificing screen size.
Netflix has explored interactive programming in the past, with kids' shows such as Puss in Boots, but those efforts were fairly simple affairs, given the young demographic of the audience and the nature of the content. If you've ever watched Black Mirror before, you'll know the show is anything but childish, frequently reaching into the very darkest recesses of the human psyche as it ruthlessly dissects our relationship with the technology around us and its effects on us as individuals and a society.
In essence, Black Mirror, given its frequent obsession with our own relationships with our screens – the black mirrors of the title – is the perfect show to experiment with this form of storytelling, but I was still a little cynical prior to watching Bandersnatch. There's no doubt that Brooker and his co-creator Annabel Jones have often peaked in the realms of genius with previous episodes of the traditional show, but all the interactive TV I've been exposed to previously has been gimmicky and lacking depth.
I should have had more faith. Brooker and Jones have delivered a post-modern masterpiece which leaves viewers unsettled and ultimately unsure whether they’re controlling what’s happening on screen or being controlled by it themselves.
The story follows a young computer programmer, Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), who, in 1984, is attempting to adapt a vast, Choose Your Own Adventure-style book into a computer game. The book's writer found himself becoming obsessed with the notion of branching paths of fate and alternative timelines while writing it, and ultimately went mad and killed his wife. It's probably not too much of a spoiler to say that, at least in the path I took through the film/game/whatever it is, Stefan is facing similar battles with his inner demons as he attempts to deliver the ZX Spectrum 48k version.
The experience leaves the viewer decidedly conflicted – masterful storytelling and a decidedly bleak tone mean we suffer Stefan's mental anguish with him, but at the same time we're the ones causing it through the choices we make. We're simultaneously both the empathetic victims of Stefan's torture, and his torturers. There was even one magnificently meta moment in my own version of Bandersnatch where I convinced the hapless teenager that he was being controlled by a Netflix viewer from the 21st century ("What's Netflix? Is it a planet?")
There are reportedly over a trillion possible permutations of the narrative, although some of the choices you make have little bearing on the story, such as what cereals to have for breakfast, with five possible endings, and over 300 minutes of total footage lurking inside Netflix's servers.
Viewing/playing (I have no idea which it is) takes anywhere from 40 minutes to infinity, depending on the choices you make, with test screenings suggesting an average of 90 minutes – heading down a dead end will find you looping back via an episodic series-style catch up to the point at which you diverged from the narrative, and this in itself adds to our sharing of Stefan’s frustrations as he tries to struggle through his masterpiece. My own experience clocked in at just under an hour, so there’s clearly plenty more to discover on repeated viewings, which the show will definitely get.
Brooker and Jones truly have delivered something completely new with Bandersnatch. Even though interactive TV is not in itself new, it is at this level of complexity. Netflix invested heavily in technology to ensure a smooth viewing experience with no lag due to the element of decision-making, and even a story engine for generating the multiple pathways viewers' choices will take them down. As such, and given the success of this first effort, it seems certain that Netflix will continue to invest in the genre. You can't help fear that Brooker and Jones may have set the bar impossibly high for future story tellers.
In one further post-modern nod and a wink, Black Mirror has, in effect, become the sum of its own worst fears with Bandersnatch. The show frequently serves as a bleak warning of how our growing reliance on screens and technology are breaking down social ties and our relationships with other human beings. With Bandersnatch, not only is it a solitary viewing experience by necessity, but even if you sat in a room with five of your friends all watching the show on different devices, you'd each be watching a completely different version of events.
I've declined to give this "film" a star rating. The one I "watched" was five stars. And five stars for the sheer audacity of taking a popular TV "brand" and taking it so far into the leftfield. But I've only watched one of a trillion-plus versions. The one you watched could have been terrible. I simply don't know as I haven't seen it. It’s a lot to take in.