TV Review: ‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’ Ups the Meta-Commentary and Crafts a Brilliant Choose-Your-Own Adventure Film

The initial announcement that Black Mirror would release a solo episode was a bit of a surprise, but it was even more of a surprise when the trailer dropped just yesterday. While there were rumblings of the film being on the way, few would have guessed it would become the project that landed. “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” pushes the boundaries of storytelling on Netflix, becoming a live-action choose-your-own-adventure film. With certain choices, you can complete the storyline within 45 minutes, but with the ability to return to different options, you can greatly alter the outcome time and time again. At once, it is both a form shifting experiment and a darkly comedic meta-commentary on the genre itself. Leave it “Black Mirror” to be one of the most self-aware series on television.

“Bandersnatch” follows the story of a young computer programmer Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead) in 1984. He has been working on a game based on a fantasy story named “Bandersnatch,” which he has designed as a choose-your-own-adventure video game. As he develops the project, he works with a gaming company (run by Asim Chaudhry) with his idol (Will Poulter). Meanwhile, his father (Craig Parkinson) and his therapist (Alice Lowe) attempt to breakthrough with Stefan about his mother. As Stefan continues to develop the game, he begins to question his reality and the world around him. He begins to go mad, just like the man who wrote the book.

Whitehead is excellent no matter which paths you take. Like a chameleon, he lays just enough groundwork in his performance to account for the divergent paths the character will take. His emotion and pathos will affect your choices at some point, sometimes out of empathy, sometimes out of spite. Simultaneously, Whitehead exists as a blank canvas, allowing him to function well as the audience avatar. It’s an extremely difficult position, and Whitehead shines at every turn, across every choice.

Poulter becomes the wildcard of the film and sucks in the room. His charisma is off the charts, and he’s funny when called upon to deliver. He breaks the fourth wall, and understands his role in the narrative strands. His character would not work if Poulter was not so charming in his own right. He brings an electric presence in each segment, and really thrives in this setting. He’s a perfect actor for the world, and he helps raise the bar for the project. Meanwhile, the other performances from Asim Chaudhry and Alice Lowe help to fill out the world. Lowe, in particular, is fun, and her straight-faced delivery of some line-readings shows true commitment.

David Slade directs the film with his unique visual flare. The lighting of characters, nighttime explorations, and even creature makeup all works beautifully. Like typical “Black Mirror” episodes, the soundtrack is dynamite. Slade implements in Tangerine Dream, Now That’s What I Call Music tape, and more seemingly inane choices. However, the movie is stitched together so well, there are sequences where you would never even realize a choice was offered. The use of choice becomes fun and interesting for the audience, and even the choices break the fourth wall on occasion. Slade’s willingness to dive into weird content helps sell the story and still keep the movie natural despite its format.

The writing and style of the film tightly adheres to experiment. Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones both serve as the executive producers on the episode. The two have written a tongue-in-cheek send-up of the genre, while fully embracing its oddity. Its brilliance comes from how perfect it functions within the choose-your-own-adventure style. By removing the choice from the protagonist, it also questions what choice really means in terms of narrative storytelling. It’s a fun experiment and should be an instant classic of the already iconic series.

As “Black Mirror” attempts to break the boundaries of storytelling, it does so at the highest levels. With excellent actors and strong direction, “Bandersnatch” will be the coolest piece of content in 2018. Having the style and vibrancy of a time period is one thing. To use that level of sophistication to tell a brilliant story on choice is another. Hats off to Brooker and Jones, who continue to push the boundaries of television in the streaming age.

What do you think of “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” and the choose-your-own-adventure format? Let us hear your thoughts in the comments below!

Stream “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” on Netflix now.

GRADE: (★½)

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