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Bandersnatch: a good introduction to interactive films but not the best

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By Zsarlene B. Chua, Reporter

Movie Review
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
Netflix

A FEW days before 2018 ended, global internet streaming service Netflix and the people behind sci-fi series Black Mirror decided to release their most ambitious project yet — an interactive film called Bandersnatch, which immediately, it caught viewers’ fancy. It presents an intriguing, yet familiar, proposition, especially for those who grew up reading Choose Your Own Adventure books published by Bantam Books from 1979.

For the Netflix show, people can make choices using their mobile devices, choices that can lead to multiple endings for the story set in 1984 and which follows Stefan Butler (played by Fionn Whitehead), the people around him, and his video game, Bandersnatch.

Bandersnatch is a unique Black Mirror story in that it’s interactive: you the viewer, get to decide what’s going to happen,” Charlie Brooker, creator/writer/producer of the series, said in a featurette uploaded by Netflix on Jan. 3.

Black Mirror is a sci-fi anthology series which started airing in 2011 and is meant to examine the unanticipated consequences of new technologies. The episodes, usually standalones, are set in an alternate timeline and are often dark and satirical.

“Netflix asked us if we’d like to do an interactive story. I knew I wanted to do another period episode and I thought, ‘Well, what if you’re controlling somebody in the past? So it kinda spiraled from there,” Mr. Brooker said.

At first, Mr. Brooker and producer Annabel Jones didn’t want to make an interactive episode and would only do it if it made sense thematically for the show.

“We didn’t want it to feel like it was just a gimmick,” Ms. Jones said.

Thankfully, Mr. Brooker had a suitable script in mind and came up with Bandersnatch, a feat said to be equivalent to four Black Mirror episodes.

And while Netflix posits that the film itself is only an hour and 30 minutes in length, The Telegraph noted that its entire length spans more than five hours if one takes note of all the choices and all the endings.

“It’s actually complicated behind the scenes but for the viewer it’s fairly straightforward — you are given choices: will you go out the door or jump out the window? But there’s a myriad sort of timelines and story branches you can go down,” Mr. Brooker said.

“It was very challenging at every stage. There were points where when working stuff out, it got like trying to do a Rubik’s cube in your head, and I had to literally get up from the desk and kind of walk around the house holding my head,” he said.

This is actually not Netflix’s first time to create an interactive film since in 2017, the company produced a children’s interactive show called Puss in Book.

“Part of the excitement in working in Netflix is constantly inventing what is internet TV. There’s a lot responsibility because we are innovating in this whole new form and so one of the things we talked about was interactive content,” Todd Yelin, VP for product at Netflix, said in a separate featurette uploaded in the same account.

He described Bandersnatch — the service’s first interactive film for an adult audience — as a film which combined “technology and design and innovation with incredible storytelling.”

MIXED REVIEWS
While the film received generally favorable reviews — Rotten Tomatoes gave it an average rating of 7.5 out of 10 based on 52 reviews as of Jan. 9 — critics have pointed out that “while Bandersnatch marks an innovative step forward for interactive content, its meta narrative can’t quite sustain interest over multiple viewings — though it provides enough trademark Black Mirror tech horror to warrant at least one watch,” said the review aggregator site.

The interactivity aspect garnered favorable to mixed reviews, with David Griffin from IGN calling the decision points “smooth and unobtrusive” while Roisin O’Connor of The Independent called the same points “wearisome” and said it “pulls you out of the story.”

This writer spent the better part of three hours navigating the film on Sunday and is inclined to agree with O’Connor — the decision points do sometimes get tedious and interfere with immersion, especially because of the card which cuts the screen every time a decision has to be made — a card which doesn’t disappear until the timer runs out even if you made your choice in less than two seconds.

It might be nitpicky, but this writer had the chance to play Tobias Weber’s Late Shift (2016), a downloadable movie/game (available on online game store Steam) billed as “The World’s First Cinematic Interactive Movie,” which succeeds in making the choices unobtrusive and in which the reaction time is suitably paced — meaning the viewer doesn’t have to wait another second before seeing the character perform the choice, especially if the choice is a critical one.

Late Shift, which was screened at the New York Film Festival and Raindance Film Festival (the audience voted for their choices through the smartphones, and the majority vote became the choice used), follows the story of Matt (Joe Sowerbutts), a night shift parking lot attendant who gets roped into a high-stakes heist in a London auction house.

Late Shift scores more points in “rewatchability” and complexity as the endings, and how you get to the endings, really vary depending on the most miniscule of choices made in several parts of the film — many gaming accounts on YouTube dedicated hours to creating video walkthroughs on how to get to all of the endings. It is a really good film, both as a suspense-heist film and an interactive one, though I do have misgivings about the film’s continuity issues.

I can only hope that, like Telltale Stories’ interactive video series Minecraft: Story Mode (2015), Late Shift also makes it way to Netflix because it deserves to be experienced by a wider audience.

But what I do like about Bandersnatch is, with a streaming giant behind its back, it pushes forward the idea of interactive stories to break the monotony of linear and passive viewing for audiences.

(It became such a hit that flowcharts upon flowcharts from fans have appeared on the internet showing how choices affect the endings.)

Oh, and I also do like the Bandersnatch ending that’s reminiscent of Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998) and because it also mirrors the joke endings from Konami’s Silent Hill horror game franchise.