Friday, January 18, 2019

Netflix and "Bandersnatch"

Here comes another late review of a movie that's been readily accessible to everyone for weeks, because all of my reviews have been late these days.  Due to a combination of work-related and personal obligations, plus being ill for most of December, I've barely consumed any media in weeks, and will be playing catch-up for the foreseeable future.  I've only seen 187 films in 2018 in total, one of my lowest tallies since I started keeping track. Even then, a pretty significant chunk of these are Netflix releases. I've seen over a dozen of their "original" films since September, and they're the only reason I'm remotely informed about the current awards race at all.

But I want to write about Netflix's "Black Mirror: Bandersnatch" today, the interactive viewing experience that lets the viewer direct the fate of a young video game creator in the 1980s as he works on a game called "Bandersnatch."  It's been described as a "Choose Your Own Adventure" title, as a narrative-directed video game, as a brilliant experiment, and as a colossal bore. "Black Mirror" creators Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones reportedly spent months on this single project, which features multiple endings, the opportunity to rewind and replay previous choices, and lots of metatextual elements in its narrative.  I spent a weekend replaying and exploring the various branching options, using online guides to reach some of the the different endings. I found it a lot of fun the first, but the whole thing got very repetitive and tedious very quickly. I can see why there have been comparisons to video games, as it felt like I was replaying bits of the story over and over again.

Was "Bandersnatch" successful and entertaining as a piece of media?  I'm very mixed on this. The interactive elements were novel, and I'm glad Netflix provided the resources to really commit to the concept.  Initially, it was fun figuring out all the ins and outs of how the narrative worked, and the mechanisms to get to the different choices. I've always been notoriously bad at "Choose Your Own Adventure," and this was no different.  I hit several dead ends early on, and had to keep going back. However, overall I didn't find the experience as satisfying as watching a regular episode of "Black Mirror." Or was it just that I didn't like the story in this particular episode?  I've been generally cooler on the installments like "Shut Up and Dance" and "Playtest," where a nerdy young protagonist finds themselves persecuted by their personal demons. Fionn Whitehead's reclusive Stefan wasn't a very compelling lead. Would I have felt different if the episode were based on "Metalhead" or "Fifteen Million Merits"?

I'm inclined to categorize "Bandersnatch" as closer to a video game than a movie, due to the nature of how the narrative plays out.  Though there is an option to simply let the system make default choices for the viewer, everything is built around the interactive element, and going through it often feels like working your way through a high budget graphic adventure game, the kind that would have video cutscenes throughout.  From that perspective, the interactive element isn't very interesting. You go around talking to other characters and gathering information like an adventure RPG, but there aren't really any puzzles to solve or tasks to accomplish. A bigger, more ambitious project might be more satisfying, but that would also take far longer to create and probably require some adjustments to Netflix's existing streaming platform.  "Bandersnatch" is already unable to be watched through certain providers that render the interactivity non-functional. Still, this is by far the widest exposure this kind of interactive media has had.

I liked the experience of going through "Bandersnatch" enough that I'd love to see Netflix continue to experiment in this space.  I wonder what other kinds of stories could be told through this format. Would I have liked it better if the story were more linear, had less (or more) choices, or were a different genre?  A romantic comedy might unfold like a Japanese dating simulator game. A mystery might offer different final culprits depending on which clues you decide to investigate. There's a "Clue" remake here just waiting to happen.  But would this kind of experience still be sustainable once the novelty factor wore off? I think so, based on the reaction we've seen to "Bandersnatch" so far, but it would be a niche audience, at least to start with. Personally, I don't think I've quite got a handle on how to process the whole experience yet.

Yet I can't help wondering about  what certain filmmakers might do with interactive media.  Francis Ford Coppola tried something like this before with "Twixt," which wasn't well received.  But what about the real boundary-pushers like Michael Haneke or Leos Carax? Dear god, what would Gaspar Noe or Lars von Trier do?      

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