Fans of Stranger Things, Donnie Darko or Groundhog Day (or like me, of all three), are almost sure to get hooked, at least temporarily, on the UK-set Bandersnatch. Besides dealing with parallel universes and time travel, and convincingly looking and sounding like the year 1984, this new Netflix release puts control over the protagonist’s lives in our hands, as the audience.
Or does it?
I say “lives” because the interactive film, in this sense, is just like a videogame. Between the 40 and 150 minutes you have to watch and play it (the average being 90), depending on the choices you make, the protagonist Stefan can reach a dead end, even die, and then be reloaded before the moment a crucial choice was made. And try again.
To make matters even more interesting, Stefan himself is programming a computer game named Bandersnatch, in which he gives players the ability to make choices for the protagonist, following a book of the same name that once drove its author mad as he got lost in creating the choices and paths within it. Stefan seems to be going down the same route. Eventually, we ourselves start wanting to pound our keyboards (or rather mice or screens) too, as we are forced to watch scenes over and over again trying to arrive at the best outcome, or uncover as many outcomes as possible. Not to mention spotting the multitude of pop-culture references, from the aforementioned films to its parent series Black Mirror to Lewis Carroll to an actual mega-game project of the 80s that bankrupted a promising company.
For both Stefan and the viewer / player, a goal that initially seems straightforward enough – delivering a compelling game on time and without bugs to the company that ordered it – proves to be a frustrating maze, riddled with daily life obstacles. These usually materialize in the form of people, like his father or therapist, who in nearly every case distract him from his purpose. Only his gaming idol, Colin, seems to get him.
Throw in a dose of childhood trauma and growing paranoia (as Stefan notices someone – you – somehow controlling his choices), and you’ve got a recipe for almost certain disaster.
(Though under uncertain terms until you’ve finally figured out what major branches lead to what major outcomes.)
Like in Groundhog Day, the (anti-)hero can restart his day with new knowledge picked up by already having lived that path. But unlike that film, which is not interactive, the Bandersnatch multiverse “remembers” the choices made for when Stefan wakes back up at the starting point: July 9th, 1984.
The path you’re watching on Bandersnatch depends on the string of choices you’ve made during a given viewing session, which cannot be completely reset until your next viewing session – no matter how many times Stefan wakes up to the hit song “Relax.” It’s like a game with checkpoints you respawn at, until you reach “game over.”
Also, in the case of Bandersnatch, the paths unfold all the way to Christmas, rather than over just one maddeningly repetitive day. In terms of timeline length, Bandersnatch is perhaps more like Donnie Darko, which shares another similarity in its thread involving therapy and meds, as well as the protagonist’s feeling of being chased or watched.
Bandersnatch reportedly has 10-12 possible endings, but a trillion possible combinations of minute and major elements.
From the cereal Stefan eats and music he listens to on the way to his big job interview, to literal life or death decisions, you can lead him if you click on one of two commands within 10 seconds – the time it would take Stefan to make the decision himself. At the same time, you’re not really fully deciding for him, since what you can choose is already pre-ordained by the brilliant creators of Bandersnatch.
I wonder what they were smoking when they came up with this plot within the plot within the plot. Stefan has to go down the rabbit hole himself in their film, and chase the rabbit again and again, to become either enlightened or increasingly delusional – you decide.
Either way, Bandersnatch will likely appeal to many conspiracy theory groupies out there (Netflix sure knows how to cater to them). It will also tickle those partial to a Stranger Things-like mix of campiness, 80s hits, and the Cold War spying complex. I would tell you more, but don’t want to give away any obvious spoilers. There are plenty out on the web, but I encourage you to give Bandersnatch a try knowing just enough to be intrigued, but not enough to be able to skip any of the dull and repetitive bits. Because those are just as essential to the game-playing experience as the exciting or gruesome ones.
Fionn Whitehead as Stefan Butler
Craig Parkinson as Peter Butler
Alice Lowe as Dr. Haynes
Asim Chaudhry as Mohan Thakur
Will Poulter as Colin Ritman
Tallulah Haddon as Kitty
Director: David Slade
Writer: Charlie Brooker