Free will? (Black Mirror: Bandersnatch movie review)

Young programmer Stefan Butler (very good Fionn Whitehead) seems to be a perfect embodiment of a genius outsider that deals better with complicated technologies than with basic emotions and his own life. Being inspired by the controversial book “Bandersnatch”, which was written by a man who fell into madness, decides to write a computer game based on it. When his idea meets with a very enthusiastic reception of one of the most famous and popular video games publishers, the protagonist want to do anything that possible to turn his plan into a masterpiece. The creators of the movie “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” not only tell the story of an interactive game, but also adopt this formula to their production. During the showing, the viewer can make decision for the character and influence the development of the story. Nevertheless, the real agency of the audience is (intentionally) rather questionable and on this level connects with the question about the ontology of free will and (in)existence  of alternative realities.

At the bottom of the screen, every now and then appear questions with two possible answers that allow you to decide what the protagonist will do or say at the moment. It begins innocently – from the choice of cereals for a breakfast and music, but slowly starts to put the viewer in more and more uncomfortable position and makes him or her lose the position of comfort watching/playing, which becomes the most radical in a scene with a possibility of committing a murder.

The narration is closely related to the plot of game – Stefan is not only the protagonist, but also the inventor of the game that remains in the dramaturgical centrum of the movie. As viewers, we can play for hours and search for all possible ends and developments of Stefan’s story, which – obviously – is a source of fun, but at the same time the creators of “Bandersnatch” don’t let us forget that their production is related to the series “Black Mirror” – dark and thrilling dystopian vision of the future world. The plot is fulfilled with references not only to the motifs of social control and progressing empowerment of machines and technologies, but also to madness and fading morality.

On a plot level “Bandersnatch” doesn’t goes beyond what’s obvious and schematic, but it is particularly interesting on the intertextual level. For example, the action takes place in 1984, which seems to be a very direct reference to George Orwell’s book, in which the British author constructs a dystopian vision of a society that is controlled by totalitarian, authoritarian institutions and authorities and in which the particular individuals are being deprived by the system of the free will (or of illusion of it).

The situation in which Stefan is put seems to be very similar. The protagonist, just like Orwell’s characters, is aware of the fact that his fate depends on the central control that is led by the viewer, but at the same time it doesn’t make him reconciled with the existence of a controlled puppet. We can in scenes in which he breaks the so-called forth wall and talks directly to his oppressors – the audience.

In Stefan’s story we can also hear an echo of another movie – “Truman Show”, in which the daily life of the main character is being broadcasted by state television. Both productions, “Bandersnatch” and “Truman Show”, seem to be grotesque caricature of the society of spectacle that takes a perverse pleasure from watching intimate life-dramas of the others.

Unfortunately, interesting contexts and engaging, innovative formula are not enough to turn “Bandersnatch” into a masterpiece. After separating form from plot, Netflix’s production turns out to be schematic and obvious narration about fatal ambition, thin border between reality and imagination, complexity of a concept of free will and – last but not least – about the devastating process of disintegration of one’s identity.  The most interesting part of the entire movie is a relation between the protagonist and the viewer, which could become an interesting point in the discussion about the morality of the audience and its habits.