Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is a 2018 interactive film in the science fiction anthology series Black Mirror. It was written by series creator Charlie Brooker and directed by David Slade. The film premiered on Netflix on 28 December 2018, its release date only officially announced the day before. Netflix did not confirm the interactive nature of Bandersnatch until its release, though there was much media speculation.
In Bandersnatch, viewers make decisions for the main character, the young programmer Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead), who is adapting a fantasy gamebook into a video game in 1984. Other characters include: Mohan Thakur (Asim Chaudhry) and Colin Ritman (Will Poulter), who work at a video game company, Stefan’s father Peter (Craig Parkinson), and Stefan’s therapist, Dr. Haynes (Alice Lowe). A postmodernist work with free will as a central theme, the film was named after a real video game planned for release by Imagine Software in 1984, the game in turn named after a bandersnatch creature of Lewis Carroll’s creation.
Brooker and executive producer Annabel Jones were approached by Netflix about making an interactive film in May 2017, during which time Netflix had several such projects for children underway. Difficulty in writing the highly non-linear script led to Netflix’s creation of a bespoke program called Branch Manager; the unique nature of the content required adaptations in the platform’s use of cache memory. Bandersnatch was originally to be part of Black Mirror’s fifth series, but its lengthy production led to its release as a standalone film, delaying the fifth series to June 2019.
Critical reception was mixed, with a positive response to the technical design of the film but criticism of the story’s characterisation. There was mixed commentary about the narrative and the extent to which viewer choices affected the story. The film received average rankings in critics’ lists of Black Mirror instalments by quality, but garnered numerous awards and nominations, winning two Primetime Emmy Awards. A lawsuit filed by Chooseco over the film’s use of the term “choose-your-own-adventure” is in progress.
Bandersnatch is an interactive film. A brief tutorial, specific to the device being streamed on, explains to the viewer how to make choices. When presented with a choice point, the user has ten seconds to make a choice or a default decision is made for them. The average viewing is 90 minutes, though the quickest path ends after 40 minutes. There are 150 minutes of unique footage divided into 250 segments, yielding over one trillion possible paths that the viewer can take. In some cases, the same scene is reachable in multiple different ways but will present the viewer with different choices based on the way they reached it. In other cases, certain loops guide viewers to a specific narrative regardless of the choices they make.
Netflix reported that there are five “main” endings, with variants within each ending; some endings are intercut with credits, similar to other Black Mirror episodes. Producer Russell McLean said there are between ten and twelve endings, some of which are more concrete than others, and according to director David Slade, there are a few “golden eggs” endings that are difficult to achieve. No ending is considered “prescribed” over any other, according to series creator Charlie Brooker and executive producer Annabel Jones, particularly as they felt some endings were not truly endings in the traditional sense. In most cases, when the viewer reaches an ending, the interactive film gives the player the option to redo a last critical choice in order to explore different content, sometimes with a fast-forward through early parts of a storyline already seen. Some endings may become impossible to reach based on choices made by the viewer unless they opt to restart the film.
Stefan Butler uses a ZX Spectrum to program his game Bandersnatch.
In England in July 1984, a young programmer named Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead) is adapting a “choose your own adventure” book owned by his late mother, Bandersnatch by Jerome F. Davies (Jeff Minter), into a revolutionary adventure game. Stefan pitches it to the video game company Tuckersoft, which is run by Mohan Thakur (Asim Chaudhry) and employs the famous game creator Colin Ritman (Will Poulter). Stefan is given the choice of accepting or rejecting help from the company in developing the game. If Stefan accepts, Colin says he chose the “wrong path”. The game is released months later and critically panned as “designed by committee”. Stefan considers trying again, and the film returns to the day of the offer, and the viewer is given the same choice.
Rejecting the offer, Stefan begins to work on the game on his own from his bedroom, given a September deadline. As the game becomes more complex, Stefan becomes stressed and is hostile to his father Peter (Craig Parkinson). He visits Dr. R. Haynes’ (Alice Lowe) clinic for therapy. The viewer may have Stefan explain to Dr. Haynes about his mother’s death: when he was five, Peter had confiscated his stuffed rabbit toy. His mother was delayed by Stefan’s refusal to leave without the rabbit and the train she took derailed, killing her. Stefan feels responsible for her death. Dr. Haynes prescribes Stefan medicine, which the viewer can choose to have Stefan take or flush down the toilet.
The viewer may have Stefan accept an invitation to Colin’s flat, where he lives with his girlfriend Kitty (Tallulah Haddon) and infant daughter Pearl. The pair take hallucinogens and Colin rants about secret government mind-control programs and alternate timelines. To demonstrate his theories, Colin demands Stefan choose one of them to jump off the balcony. If Stefan jumps, he dies and the game is finished by Tuckersoft to poor reviews. If Colin jumps, the whole encounter is revealed to be a dream, but Colin is absent in future scenes.
As the deadline to deliver the game looms, Stefan begins to feel he is being controlled by outside forces. Stefan finds his life mirroring that of Davies, about whom he learns through a book, and a documentary which Colin gives him. Like Davies, he sees recurring imagery of a “branching pathway” symbol, which seemingly led to Davies beheading his own wife. As he begins to mentally break down, the viewer has multiple options to explain to Stefan who has been controlling him, including the option for Stefan to be told that he is being watched on Netflix in the 21st century. The viewer may discover a locked safe that contains either Stefan’s old toy rabbit or documents about him being monitored as part of an experiment.
There are numerous possible endings. Stefan may choose to fight his therapist, after which it may be revealed that he is in a film set and that his “dad” is a fellow actor. One set of choices leads to Stefan seemingly crossing through a mirror to his five-year-old self to “die” with his mother in the train crash, causing him to suddenly die in the present. In other paths, the viewer has the option to make Stefan kill his father, then bury or chop up the body. Burying it leads to Stefan being jailed before the release of the game. Dismembering it leads to the successful release of the game, but Stefan goes to prison shortly afterwards and the game is recalled and destroyed. Other scenes show Mohan, Colin or Kitty arriving at Stefan’s house, sometimes with the option to kill the characters. In some endings, the viewer is shown the critical reaction to the Bandersnatch game and the fate of Tuckersoft, which may go out of business. Other endings conclude in the present day with an adult Pearl (Laura Evelyn), now a programmer for Netflix, attempting to adapt Bandersnatch into an interactive film. The viewer chooses for her to pour tea over her computer or destroy it.
Credits adapted from Screen Rant.
Fionn Whitehead as Stefan Butler, a young programmer
Will Poulter as Colin Ritman, an acclaimed game designer
Asim Chaudhry as Mohan Thakur, the owner of Tuckersoft
Craig Parkinson as Peter Butler, Stefan’s father
Alice Lowe as Dr. R. Haynes, a therapist
Tallulah Haddon as Kitty, Colin’s girlfriend
Catriona Knox as Leslie, a video game review host
Jonathan Aris as Crispin, a news reporter
Paul M Bradley as Robin, a video game review critic
Alan Asaad as Satpal, a Tuckersoft employee
Suzanne Burden as Judith Mulligan, a documentary host
Fleur Keith as Stefan’s mother
Laura Evelyn as Pearl Ritman, the child of Colin and Kitty
Jeff Minter as Jerome F. Davies, author of Bandersnatch
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