The high-profile return of the interactive movie was not inevitable; the last time around, such a project barely made a cultural dent. 1995’s Mr. Payback opened on 37 screens to critical disdain and barely any audience; wrapping up the year in film, Roger Ebert singled it out as not just the year’s worst movie, but the year’s worst idea for a movie. The choices (with the audience voting through joysticks attached to their cinema seats) in the 20 to 30-minute narrative weren’t of much import; it’s a low-stakes comedy in which all decisions made lead to a happy ending, so the decisions were more along the lines of, should Freddy Krueger make a cameo?
Interactive films didn’t go away in the gap between then and Bandersnatch (2018), Netflix’s very special interactive episode of Charlie Brooker’s ‘Black Mirror’ television series. The genre took off in the 1980s, when LaserDisc technology enabled the visual jump from chapter to chapter previously confined to Choose Your Own Adventure books. The wave was a very ’80s phenomenon, and while a limited number of interactive movies have been produced since, the stakes have remained low: Netflix’s previous attempts include 2017’s Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale, a ‘Puss in Boots’ cartoon spin-off from the Shrek franchise. Bandersnatch was much more laborious: two years in gestation, its creator considers the 35-day shoot the equivalent of doing four episodes at once. Another one of Brooker’s morality plays about Technology and Unintended Consequences, this is a far more portentous product than the goofy Mr. Payback.
Bandersnatch tracks Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), a young video game programmer in 1984 working on…an interactive game. The episode is mercilessly self-reflexive, constantly explaining how interactive games work, how choices are made, how free will is ultimately an illusion, how every choice made affects your path; from the first song cue (Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s injunction to ‘relax, don’t do it’, har har) the episode never, ever arrives at a place where it stops explaining itself or the obvious. There are eight possible endings, some more cheerful than others, but the experience of navigating to each is a slog, and the technological seams show. Whenever you make a decision out of the two offered, the shot holds on an extended close-up of an anticipatory reaction shot or someone repeating their dialogue. When you go down a wrong path that clearly terminates the story early, you have to go back and sit through a lot of footage you’ve already seen that wasn’t terribly compelling the first time. If one of the possible trajectories were viewed as a linear film, it’d be slow going: the vibe is basically Donnie Darko with a little In the Mouth of Madness sprinkled in, with putatively ominous establishing shots and endless dialogue literalizing the teen dread of the former and the author’s-insanity-infects-the-world plot of the latter.
Netflix spent much of 2018 making news of various kinds. Bandersnatch is part of USD$13 billion spent on content that year, part of a breathless torrent of new developments: bending enough on theatrical distribution to show Roma in 70mm at select locations, ponying up for a variety of projects with unlikely commercial prospects, announcing 47 stand-up specials to be dropped on one day (New Year’s 2019, it turned out). Novelty aside, Bandersnatch doesn’t stand out as one of the company’s more interesting projects: it’s a weekend novelty, good for a few hours’s worth of increasingly annoying experimentation, in which narrative repetition and wheel-spinning produce increasingly strong frustration. What distinguishes this interactive movie, besides its streaming platform, is the speed at which Reddit users predictably mapped out every single choice and path you could take, saving impatient viewers the slog of personally test-driving it themselves.
Per the usual logic that capitalism is happy to assimilate and profit from any criticism or parody of its institutions, two of the Bandersnatch hotlines lead viewers to situations in which Netflix itself becomes a plot point, in a fashion that simultaneously satirizes the company’s current ubiquity while implicitly celebrating it. Bandersnatch goes on and on about choice and free will or lack thereof, and the company’s ability to release the project and inevitably receive reams of commentary suggests a very cynical real-world demonstration of the thesis. From the moment the project was conceived, it was pre-ordained that it would be one of the surest ways for culture beat-writers to earn a paycheck the week of its release. The public is a different matter.
Narratively, this is a dead-end – like the VR industry’s ongoing foundering attempts to make the public care, it’s unlikely that the desired demand will be generated, hopefully proving that not every expenditure of large amounts of capital on ‘innovations in storytelling’ inevitably incites the desired Pavlovian response.
Main image: Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Netflix