After a late night first time viewing of Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch, I put pen to paper to explore its many dimensions
Disclaimer: before I begin to take you on this journey, please note that there are several spoilers ahead. Now would be a good time to stop reading if you haven’t seen the film.
In an article about Bandersnatch, Polygon rightly points out that everything in this interactive film leads to and reminds us “all about Netflix”. This aspect of the film piqued my curiosity. After watching it once through, I became intrigued to find out more about the Black Mirror franchise that I hadn’t already known. The first ever episode premiered in 2011. Though, I remember hearing about and catching up with the series around 2016. Maybe this has something to do with Channel 4 being Black Mirror’s original home. Nevertheless, the exploration into UK culture is one of Black Mirror’s many unique selling points.
So, when exactly did global interest in the show peak? Black Mirror’s move to Netflix in 2016 came after the release of the first two series on the streaming service. Severed ties with Channel 4, along with a deal between Netflix and the show’s creators meant Black Mirror’s fate was sealed. Netflix’s interest enabled it to not only become “hugely popular with American audiences” but also prompted “a bidding war among the US networks”.
Shows like itself and Stranger Things have gone onto gain a cult-like fan base that in some ways is reminiscent of Doctor Who and Harry Potter. Charlie Brooker and producer Annabel Jones with the help of Netflix have been awarded with more creative freedom. This has allowed them to transform Black Mirror from a ‘comedy show’, to an anthology series that in many ways is a futuristic dystopian proclamation of the potential implications of technology. With the release of the first official book Inside Black Mirror and the pending release of Black Mirror: Volume I this year, the franchise is only getting bigger.
Bandersnatch contains several subliminal messages, facets and layers that I plan to unravel now that the business of Black Mirror’s origins has been covered. While watching it once through, I couldn’t help but think “Wow, Charlie Brooker is out here one upping everyone!”. An interactive film involving audience participation…I’ve never really seen anything like it. After experiencing a whirlwind of emotions, I had this surge of energy around 3am in the morning on New Year’s Eve. This compelled me to write a review almost immediately after the film came to such a dramatic and unexpected end. This sci-fi thriller is stacked with grotesque twists and turns that had me on the edge of my seat. When the viewer is given the option to sit in the driver’s seat making decisions on the fate of the main character Stefan (played by Fionn Whitehead), that’s when I really began to question whether I had any control of the narrative at all.
The excitement has you plunging into the driver’s seat of a fate that’s already been pre-determined by the writer. I also found it interesting how Stefan is the architect of the game Bandersnatch in the film. He believes he has autonomy not just over his own life, but the fate of the characters in the game he is making. Soon he realises his Dad has been using his life as a controlled experiment. How ironic. Though, in an alternate ending this is overwritten when he decides to go with his mum. Unbeknown to him, he is in a virtual reality which we are manipulating. Though, he soon comes to realise that his actions aren’t of his own volition. Instead his free will has been stripped away from him by viewers subscribed to a 21st century streaming service called Netflix.
I realised some options kept recurring no matter how hard I tried to avoid them. The option to “Kill his Dad” for one. Likewise, in many instances where I had made the “wrong” choice his path would once again be rewritten. This would occur almost in a matter of minutes, leading back to him waking up abruptly in his bed to a new fate in the early hours of the morning. So, my theory is that some events are just inevitable and there’s no way of getting around that. I wonder if inevitability in this case was used as a way of foreshadowing an eventual death – just not his Dad’s but his own. My only option in cases like this where I was forced to choose between making Stefan “bury his Dad’s body” or “chop his body up” was to go with the ‘lesser of two evils’. Or the one which I thought would have less consequences for him in the film. That was a difficult ethical dilemma, which you’re given only a matter of seconds to make the decision for.
It got me thinking…who controls the writer?
There’s an omnipresence and omniscience about the role of the writers in the film, that many religious people could possibly link to beliefs surrounding the way God operates in society. Although, I’m not qualified to say whether the writers wanted to make this connection or not. It does seem likely.
Next though, I want to touch on the impact of the breaking of the fourth wall in the film. We see this being done quite effectively in House of Cards. For those who don’t know, ‘breaking the fourth wall’ is when the character is aware of his or her fictional nature and breaks character by addressing the audience. In a lot of the endings I arrived at, Stefan breaks the fourth wall. After realising he’s being watched he says, “Who is doing this? Why are you doing this? I’m not in control!”. A moment of panic that makes you feel even more involved in the film than you already are. Where have we seen audience control to this degree before? We see this type of audience participation in live TV, where the audience at home is encouraged to vote or the studio audience is invited on stage in some cases. Yet, seeing audience participation done on this format proves that there is in fact no rules when it comes to creativity.
I now want to look at anthology series more generally, because this is such an interesting phenomenon that makes shows like Black Mirror and American Horror Story so fascinating to watch episode after episode. For the sake of not overloading you with a bunch of historical facts, in your own time check out this very detailed piece on how anthology series have been incorporated into popular culture over the years.
Are you someone who enjoys the slow build up that allows you to have a somewhat personal relationship with each character? Or are you someone who enjoys a good new story line each episode? In an article by The Guardian published in November last year, Stuart Heritage wrote that we are in fact “spoilt for choice” with the “individual stories” that anthology series like Black Mirror offers. So, what did the creators hope to achieve by making Black Mirror an anthology series? In an interview with Den of Geek Charlie Brooker claimed the idea came from being inspired by the “Twilight Zone-style anthology series” and “really enjoying the fact that they brought a creepy story each week”. The plan was to take it on, emulate it and follow on from there.
Finally, I want to end on what I think the film conveys about the dangers of living in the “what if”. We’ve all done this, I’m sure. We’re all guilty at one point of saying, “What if I…”. Well, this film pretty much embodies those hidden thoughts and possible realities. On the one hand, I think it’s saying that some outcomes are pretty much unavoidable. On the other, I think it shows the domino effects and negative consequences of being obsessed with trying to change time.
You either watch it as though it’s a film where you’re just participating. Or you go full geek mode and play it as though it’s a game and you’re testing out its various components. I’ll admit at times it got tiring. I felt like I was caught in a never-ending vortex of possibilities like that of the Matrix or something. Overall, I was excited to see it play on innate human desires. After watching, you’re left with a ton of unanswered questions. Not only that, but you still can’t help to wonder what could have happened if you had chosen differently….