Fusing video games with film

Black Mirror’s latest release introduces new feature, continues series’ pessimism

From choosing what someone eats for breakfast to determining whether murder is committed, Netflix’s recent interactive film, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, deceives viewers into thinking they can control the story’s plot.

But that is all it is, deception – a brilliant one.

Bandersnatch tackles the age-old philosophical debate of free will vs. predeterminism with powerful dialogue, a unique structure and vibrant cinematography.

photo courtesy Wikipedia
On Dec. 28, the interactive film Black Mirror: Bandersnatch was released on Netflix. The film includes a feature that allows viewers to make decisions for the main character.

The movie released Dec. 28 and follows a young programmer, Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead), as he writes a new video game, losing his grip on sanity in the process. Periodically throughout the film, the narrative pauses as two different choices appear at the bottom of the screen, letting the audience make decisions for Butler. Because of this interactive feature, the film has multiple endings.

After a few pauses, it becomes clear viewers are not actually in control; regardless of which we choose, the program creators redirect the story back onto its predetermined course – either by replaying the loop until we select their desired choice, or by subtly altering the plot so their desired choice ends up happening no matter what we click. No matter our choices, Butler’s fate is bleak. There is nothing we can do to help him – even though Netflix wants us to think there is.

This illusion trickles down multiple layers in Bandersnatch. Inside the film, Butler is fighting his own feud against predeterminism, as he begins to feel some outside force (Netflix viewers) making choices for him and demands, “Who’s doing this to me?” By the end, Butler has reflected the illusion into his video game, as explained when he says, “I’d been trying to give the player too much choice … now they’ve only got the illusion of free will, but really, I decide the ending.”

Although Butler is speaking about his video game players, he is also speaking about himself, and about humanity overall. Another character, Colin Ritan (Will Poulter), compares humanity to the game Pac-Man when he says, “he thinks he’s got free will but he’s really trapped in a maze, in a system, all he can do is consume, he’s pursued by demons that are probably just in his own head, and even if he does manage to escape by slipping out one side of the maze, what happens? He comes right back in the other side.”

At its core, Bandersnatch is a depressing, but powerful, illustration of free will as a pipe dream. Its interactive feature is not used as a gimmick, but instead as a way of enhancing that theme, and that is what I love most about the film.

Although I greatly appreciated the film’s purposeful structure and potent theme, its character development was lacking. Butler is presented as a plot device instead of a character – he has almost no personality. Most other Black Mirror episodes also prioritize theme over character, but this disparity was heightened in Bandersnatch because the viewers made half of Butler’s choices for him; decision making is a crucial part of characterization, as every decision a character makes reveals something about who they are.

I believe in choice. But Bandersnatch does not, and the film communicates its own beliefs with inspiring power.

Follow Pramika on Twitter @pramika_kadari


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