'Black Mirror: Bandersnatch' Spoiler Review: A Course-Correcting Adventure Gives The Illusion Of Choice

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch isn't the first movie to test the concept of a Choose Your Own Adventure-style narrative with diverging pathways on-screen. In late 2017 and early 2018, Steven Soderbergh did it with his murder mystery app and HBO movie, Mosaic. With its availability on the worldwide streaming service of Netflix, however, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch has taken the concept to a new level, giving a global viewing platform to a new kind of interactive cinematic storytelling.

In the movie, the viewer becomes a backseat driver for the main character, but while it might feel like you're steering the story for a while, it soon becomes clear that Bandersnatch — to quote Lost — "has a way of course-correcting itself." As it presents viewers with decisions, it doesn't quite go all-in on the idea of a branching narrative with different conclusions. Instead, it wants to mix and match endings, showing you multiple outcomes without committing to any single one.

The movie prefers you to make certain choices over others, so much so that it will return you to those choices and give you a second chance to choose the right one, as it were. In a way, this goes along with the idea of a video game, with Pac-Man not giving up on reaching the final level even though he's died. It also goes along with the age-old theme of free will versus determinism, which is something that Bandersnatch has on its mind. Let's take a spoiler-filled look at the movie's tangled decision web and examine how viewer missteps and system course-corrections enforce the notion of choice as an illusion.

Multiple Ending Syndrome

Wikipedia classifies the official Choose Your Own Adventure books as "gamebooks." For lack of a better word, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is a "gamemovie" that heightens the subjectivity of the normal viewing experience. Your mileage may vary, but the two times I watched it, I had vastly different emotional experiences as a viewer.

The nature of the movie is such that everyone watching it will see the scenes in a different order, but that's the thing: whichever order you watch it, you will see Bandersnatch hit the same major beats, some of them two or even three times, possibly. With every viewing, you'll see the protagonist, Stefan, talking to his dad at the breakfast table, visiting the game company Tuckersoft, going to therapy and the record store, having an acid trip at an associate's apartment, and so on.

Then, unless you opt to exit to the credits sooner, you'll inevitably reach the wild package of multiple endings. As if to spite The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Bandersnatch has no fewer than five main endings (this, according to Netflix, via THR). Regardless of how you choose, you'll see most of them play out on-screen in a staggered fashion, with Stefan doing some mixture of the following:

1. Fighting his therapist and getting dragged away or suddenly discovering he's on a movie set.

2. Killing his dad, burying him or chopping him up, getting caught, and going to prison, where he's left to scratch glyphs on the walls.

3. Learning of a government conspiracy called "Program and Control," whereby his whole life has been part of a controlled study since childhood.

4. Going back in time and dying on the train with his mother, thereby causing his present-day self to die with no visible cause in his therapist's office.

5. Seeing some version of the Bandersnatch game released and reviewed, with another coder taking up the task of redesigning it years later after it's been pulled from shelves.

I could be off, but that's a rough approximation of the five main endings, based on memory and my own haphazard notes (which I had to finally abandon, lest I go the lunatic route of Stefan in his prison cell). It's how you get to those endings that forms the maddening endeavor of Bandersnatch as a subjective viewing experience.

Choices and Pseudo-Choices

On my second viewing, I found myself back at the computer desk, being given the option of telling Stefan about Netflix three separate times. At least once, it and the other option were couched in similar terms, making it painfully obvious that there was little to no difference between the two choices, or pseudo-choices. Tell Him More or Try to Explain? Those two options essentially mean the same thing.

Aside from the overall order of scenes, it's only immaterial flourishes in Bandersnatch that appear to be different each time. Which brand of cereal do you want Stefan to eat, Sugar Puffs or Frosties? Which music album do you want him to listen to, Thompson Twins or Now 2? Phaedra or The Bermuda Triangle?

The placebo effect of choices is not limited to the one at the computer desk, either. Many times you're given two choices where the wording is different but the core decision is the same, and it leads to the same result, either way.

Bite Nails or Pull Earlobe? Same difference. The core decision is: display nervousness.

Throw Tea Over Computer or Destroy Computer? Same difference. The core decision is: inflict damage on the computer.

When the game-designing legend, Colin Ritman, offers Stefan a hit of LSD, it's almost framed like a callback to the red-or-blue-pill scene in The Matrix. However, in this instance, your all-important choice, such as it were, is entirely inconsequential. Even if you refuse the drugs, Colin will promptly slip you a mickey when you're not looking.

The biggest choice I was interested to see play out differently on my second viewing was the one about who goes over the side of the balcony railing, Stefan or Colin. As it turns out, it doesn't matter. The movie wants Colin dead and it will compel you to make that happen.

Another example of pseudo-choice in Bandersnatch is the decision about whether or not to have Stefan talk about what happened with his mother when he was little. If you choose "No" the first time, Stefan's therapist (and secret mother?), Dr. Haynes, grows insistent and asks again if Stefan wants to talk about what happened. If you choose "No" the second time, the movie finds other ways to keep pushing its preferred answer of "Yes."

The option to go back and have Stefan "Talk About Mum" pops up again later, and if you still avoid pursuing that option, you eventually hit a moment where it's the only choice you have. There will now be no other choice than to go back and "Talk About Mum," like the movie wanted you to do in the first place.

Obviously, this is an important decision for Stefan—or for the movie. It serves an expository function within the story, allowing Bandersnatch to unfold a flashback with necessary information about his history.

The choice option, that ten-second countdown to a binary decision, is all part of the grand illusion that the viewer is somehow in control, when in fact, the viewer is something of a rat in a maze.

The maze pattern is fascinating, of that there is no doubt. With its endless permutations, Bandersnatch is a movie that seems tailor-made for tinfoil-hat-wearing Internet obsessives to pour over. Then again, maybe it's all jabberwocky, like the nonsense poem that gives the movie's titular video game its name.

It's probably a fool's errand to go too far down the rabbit hole listing specific choices and sub-choices in Bandersnatch. To properly map the movie out and leave no corner of it undocumented, you'd need an elaborate diagram the likes of which only a crazy person would have the wherewithal to assemble. I'm not even really sure our brains have the computing capacity to do it.

Keep in mind, that's how Stefan goes insane, by wallpapering his room with a tree of living story choices. You could probably quit your job and spend all of 2019 doing what he did, but even then, you might be missing some Easter egg.

A Not-Quite Choose Your Own Adventure

So now that we've talked about some of the movie's choices and how they (as Colin would phrase it) "snake off like roots," how does the sum total of the Bandersnatch experience measure up?

The first time I watched Bandersnatch, I was rather wowed. This lasted even as the movie wore on and became more cyclical and convoluted. It lasted up until the late juncture where I felt Bandersnatch had turned into a confused jumble of endings and non-endings.

Even then, the cumulative effect of intellectual stimulation won out over any last-minute frustration I might have felt. On the whole, Bandersnatch was head-swimming and exciting in a next-level way that took me back to late 2009 when everyone said James Cameron's Avatar was the future of cinema. (It was the immediate future, but maybe not in the way anyone expected or would have wanted. In case anyone's forgotten, that's the movie we have to thank for the 3-D fad of the 2010s.)

The second time I watched Bandersnatch, I began to see why some people might refer to the movie as tedious. Bandersnatch wages a war of attrition on the viewer's patience until the novelty wears off and you find yourself wanting to give up and just let the movie make the decisions for you.

As a repeat viewer, I was interested in exploring some of the story options I had chosen against the first time around. Story-wise, there were new bits of foreshadowing that I picked up on, like how Stefan's father seems to sense his own impending murder and burial when he sees the dog digging outside the kitchen window. "It'll be the death of us," he says. In addition to giving a callback to a previous Black Mirror episode, the Nohzdyve video game also foreshadows Colin's balcony jump (or Stefan's).

Very soon, however, these new insights on the second viewing gave way to boredom, a suffocating sense of being handcuffed by the troll face from the end of the earlier Black Mirror episode, "Shut Up and Dance." Charlie Booker, is that you?

As the movie puts it, "The past is immutable," so rewinding back before the beginning of the scene you're in is not an option. There's also no time displayed, which makes the movie feel like it's going on forever as you get toward the ostensible end.

Maybe Bandersnatch plays too much of its hand up front. Its bag of tricks is less effective when it's already shown you four of its endings in one sitting, and now you're just being forced to jump through the same hoops, again and again, as you probe the limitations of the labyrinth.

It's a byzantine narrative network, one that seems designed to hammer home a decidedly deterministic viewpoint. Forget free will, as exemplified by the Terminator franchise creed of, "No fate but what we make." Analysts have already unpacked that great movie quote, showing it to be a "messy doctrine" that stands contradicted by the Terminator movies themselves.

In true dark fashion for a series about the dangers of technology, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch highlights the essential powerlessness of the individual. The movie has a character teasing that we "exist within multiple parallel realities at once," but it also says there's a "cosmic flow chart" that dictates where you can and can't go. "You're just a puppet," it tells us. "You're not in control." And so we aren't.

It made me think of the robotic hosts in HBO's Westworld, how they start out the series being stuck inside their little loops, each of them forced to relive the same defining trauma in their lives, again and again. What Bandersnatch seems to be saying is that individual lives are bound by greater constructs that make it impossible sometimes for them to break out of their loops.

The game is rigged. It becomes a system of oppression against the player. Hemmed in by a duality of choices (unlike life, there is never a third option in Bandersnatch), it's the kind of no-win situation where if you attempt to make Stefan jump out a window, you'll come up against a wall in the movie where you're literally told, "You're not scripted to jump out."

Trying to switch up your progression of choices in the hopes of garnering a drastically different result is a futile exercise. Nowhere is this more evident than in the scene where Stefan talks about a realization he had while designing the Bandersnatch game. He confesses to Dr. Haynes:

"I've been trying to give the player too much choice. So I went back, stripped loads out. Now they've only got the illusion of free will. Really, I decide the ending."

And there you go: that's the movie's mission statement. While we may engineer complicity with certain choices, in the end, we only have the illusion of free will. It's a not-quite Choose Your Own Adventure.

The Future of the Bandersnatch Model

Whatever else it is, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is no mere passive form of entertainment. The experience of watching it is a busy one: both mentally, as you're having your mind boggled, and physically, as you're tapping the screen to make decisions.

The movie throws a lot at the wall and in some ways, ends up being a bit too meta and messy for its own good. Winking moments like the insertion of Netflix into the story (which lands like product placement), or the ability to tap, "Fuck Yeah," and put the whole thing into action mode, ultimately come off as cheeky time-wasters.

After a while, it starts to feel like you're trapped inside a game demo—which is by design, naturally. The form of Bandersnatch is reflective of its content, and vice versa. As a proper movie, however, such an experiment might be more dramatically satisfying if it offered a streamlined version of the same concept, one that would commit to a definitive ending instead of playing through a litany of them.

Giving the viewer the option to exit to the credits is all well and good, but if you think about, it almost seems like another choice-illusion. People are naturally curious and the first time they watch Bandersnatch, most of them aren't going to be thinking, "Whelp, I'm satisfied, let's turn the movie off" ... not when there's clearly more that comes after the exit option.

Unless they're pressed for time, I'd wager that most viewers are going to sit there and watch the full combination of endings, for fear of missing something. Modern audiences have already been trained to sit through the closing credits of movies in order to see the mid-credits scenes and/or post-credits scene.

It will be interesting to witness what kind of cultural ripple effect, if any, Bandersnatch has: whether its Choose Your Own Adventure style will prove to be a throwaway gimmick, like Avatar's promise of 3-D immersion, or whether this storytelling stunt on Netflix will lead to more meaningful interactive films. We could be looking at a new renaissance in narrative filmmaking, or we could be looking at a situation where everyone will have forgotten about this thing by next week.

As a lone viewer, I have no misgivings about "conquering" Bandersnatch. There may well be hidden surprises in the movie that I didn't discover in my two viewings. Having read a few other reactions online now, I can tell you that I never got to see the version of the story where either Colin or his boss visited Stefan at home. It was always Colin's wife who visited Stefan in the versions I saw.

For Redditors and other dedicated fans, it might be tempting to track breadcrumbs like that, but in all honesty, I have no desire to go back and watch the movie a third time. Would you?

Personally, I almost wish I hadn't even watched it a second time, because, during that second viewing, I realized that Bandersnatch might have retained more of its potency had I left it as a one-and-done. That's how I'd recommend it to people. "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice ..."

Yet I'll say this much on behalf of Bandersnatch. As I watched the movie the first time, before I realized its endgame, there were choices I made for Stefan that caused me to reflect on my own personality traits, who I am and why I opted to make this snap decision instead of that one as the ten-second countdown occurred. It made me think of judgment calls in my own life: how I can be a bit of workaholic, with a tendency to overextend myself in terms of deadlines, for instance. So of course, when Stefan's boss called up wanting him to finish designing the video game by the end of the day, my first choice was to make Stefan tell him that he (or we) could meet the deadline.

That same day, before Bandersnatch went live on Netflix, I had listened to a back episode of the Write Along podcast, entitled, "We are our choices." In that episode, /Filmcast host David Chen and C. Robert Cargill, the co-screenwriter of Sinister and Doctor Strange, talked about how choice is of paramount importance in storytelling. Choice is everything. It reveals character, illuminating who our protagonists are and what makes them interesting.

If Hollywood could somehow perfect the Choose Your Own Adventure model — maybe let us backtrack via a menu of chapters? — then the screen tales of the future might have the potential, in real time, to teach us as much about ourselves as they do about the characters that populate them. The best stories already do leave a simmering, life-affirming impression like that, of course.

What this newer model, carried forward by Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, offers (at least in theory) is the ability to weaponize micro-decisions. Choices become epiphanies in the viewer's mind.

If only those epiphanies led to a different result, one outside the self-defeating loop that keeps us all chasing morsels of cheese in a bid to escape the system.