Sunday, 30 December 2018

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018) - Movie Review’re gonna be stepping into new territory with this review, as I’m not just looking at a film but an interactive film. Netflix has been toying around with this idea for a while now, even porting a version of Minecraft: Story Mode onto the service, but this is the first attempt at something for more mature audiences. Getting into the details with this one is going to be tricky, as this is the kind of feature where there exist flowcharts that detail all the different choices and paths you can take as a viewer/controller; I’ll be here all day if I tried to pin down this film’s singular narrative. So, instead, I’m basically going to treat this like any other piece of interactive fiction: How does it control, what’s the story like, and is one worth dealing with to get to the other (i.e. would this have worked better as just a standard feature)?

For starters, this is a Black Mirror feature and it carries a lot of the recognisable aspects of that series: Muted colour palette, incredibly dreary subject matter, existential dread by way of interfacing with technology, etc. As a bog-standard Black Mirror episode, this works out rather nicely. The story of a computer programmer working on an adaptation of a Choose Your Own Adventure book, Charlie Brooker’s writing benefits from getting a lot of the contextual details down right at the start. Set during the British home computing revolution of the 1980’s, when companies like Commodore and Sinclair ruled the market, it offers a cool look back at a simpler time for computer games. Cassette tapes were the storage medium of choice, graphics were as blocky as it gets and the music bleeped away while you traversed what a whole 64 kilobytes could get you.

That’s just background noise, though; what it’s really about is the nature of choice, the fundamental aspect of any video or computer game. Cleaving through the Meta Triumphant moments of the story itself can be quite the brain scramble, but the funny thing is that this kind of approach to interactive storytelling has been kicking around for quite a while. A postmodern re-examination on the notion that, through a game, a player can control every single action that a character makes. Going from the choices within a game, to the choices made in life, to the choices we wish we made in life, to wondering whether choice is even a real thing we have; it’s all very heady stuff, and quite frankly, it makes for an experience that manages to exceed even the greats in this mode like The Stanley Parable. It’s all so much more frightening when it involves a flesh-and-blood human being.

As for the multiple-choice gimmick, aside from being very effective in reinforcing the story’s themes, the choices offered are actually pretty cool. Again, literal flowcharts exist to map them all out, but they’re the kind of paths that put one in an experimental mindset, trying new choices just to see what happens. While some choices are rather Hobson, offering only one path to follow, the diverting paths can get intense: From music to murder, from breakfast to government conspiracy, from fourth-wall-bending lunacy to Donnie Darko-esque quiet dread, there’s good variety here and each path leads to some form of mind-screwing visuals. And what’s more, the way that the choices actually manifest within the film’s reality can get pretty confronting, keeping the idea of choice and who is making said choice well in mind. And for those worried that it’s going to take several watch-throughs to see it all, it’s set up so that getting all the endings is possible on the first try.

So, all up, how does this fare? Is the gimmick worth bothering with? Is the story worth sitting through? Is one worth dealing with to get to the other? Well, to be perfectly blunt, yeah, yeah and fuck yeah! Black Mirror as a series exists to push humanity’s buttons in regards to the buttons that it pushes regarding technology, and as a new frontier in that goal, this is quite the success. The format and the story blend perfectly into quite a frightening rush, the effect that comes with the best that the series has to offer. The official running time is 90 minutes, but between all the different options, you’ll likely be sitting down for even longer than that. If you want more Black Mirror action, or if you’re just interested in video game media, definitely check this one out.

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