The Illusion of Choice in Netflix’s ‘Bandersnatch’

The much-awaited 2018 Christmas release of Black Mirror was Bandersnatch. Instead of delivering another season, Charlie Brooker pushed the envelope by creating an interactive film instead. In Bandersnatch, Netflix viewers got to choose their own adventure by making choices for the protagonist, arriving at different conclusions at the end of the movie.

The trick here was encapsulating multiple permutations and combinations (which Reddit users immediately started decoding through detailed flowcharts) for the conclusion of a single film.

Is this the future of cinema? The same film gets viewers across the world hooked to the same streaming platform but not all get to watch the same story. There are at least five distinct endings depending on the choices you make over the course of the movie. These may range from being objectively gruesome to almost peaceful. Black Mirror’s creators attempt a self-aware critique of interactive cinema through Bandersnatch. Interactive television is not something new to Netflix; it has tested this formula through Puss in Boots earlier.

Unlike previous Black Mirror episodes which are placed in a contemporary or dystopian future , this story is set in the previous century and the entire plot makes our current world seem like a dystopian future.

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Bandersnatch plays around with our sense of time both within its narrative and outside it. For instance, the movie can take anywhere between 40 minutes to two hours to finish, depending on the viewer’s choices. And within the narrative, the viewer’s choices lead the characters back and forth through time.

The protagonist can go back in time and change things if the viewer wants him to. He can even alter the course of most of his life (or so it seems) by going back to his childhood and doing things differently. It is uncertain just how far viewers can go to change things.

The dialogue repeatedly reminds viewers of the limits of our “free will”. The fact that all the endings have already been concocted by the creators, reaffirms this. No matter which option you choose, at the end of the day, you are restricted to the ones already dreamt up by the film’s creators. It is not your story – you are an instrument in the progression of the plot, but the show will go on, regardless of your presence.

Those who grew up on a heavy dose of choose-your-own-adventure video games will find the interactive technique quite familiar, but this mode has seldom been implemented in mainstream cinema before. Moreover, the fact that Black Mirror, a show which revolves around a dystopian future built by human ambition and technology, goes a step farther. At some point, the fiction – which follows a video game developer, Stefan – incorporates the viewer’s active presence in Stefan’s narrative into the movie itself.

At one point, Stefan asks for a sign to tell him who is controlling his actions, and the viewer can choose ‘Netflix’ from the options. That’s when you realise that the early 21st century – where you are right now – is the ominous future so characteristic of Black Mirror.

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Stefan’s dad and psychologist are startled to learn that Stefan is a mere puppet for someone from the future. The latter even wonders if Netflix is another planet.

Clearly, Netflix itself becomes a distinct character in the film as characters discuss and wonder about what it really is. The streaming platform assumes a larger-than-life, mythic status.  In one of the endings, Stefan tells the psychologist, Dr Haynes that Netflix is a futuristic technology from the 21st century and later Haynes is seen as a cast member of Black Mirror itself – he is literally present on the sets of the show. This concludes with him insisting that his original name is Stefan, hence blurring the boundary between reality and fiction.

The distinction between the storyteller and the audience diminishes over the course of the story. This could be hailed as the democratisation of art, except that the show reflexively depicts how intimidating it is that television (like video games) has become a bidirectional platform now.

Netflix has hit a milestone with Bandersnatch – the experience is unparalleled and cannot be reproduced in its real essence on any other viewing platform. From a business perspective, this medium minimises the risk of piracy, however it also limits this storytelling to those who can afford a Netflix subscription. Through this novel technique, Netflix has almost monopolised bidirectional television for now.

Not all Netflix viewers are thrilled about this gift of choice though. Netflix is so synonymous with leisure that apparently, micromanaging Stefan’s destiny is too stressful to many a viewer used to a rather sedentary consumption of television content.

Twitter seems to be divided between people who welcome this new venture and those who perceive the exercise of choosing as stressful. Many users have created memes on the unique nature of the movie. Netflix often indulges in self-critical tropes through this franchise and Bandersnatch seems to have heightened it.

Consumers who can afford it are glued to their screens, hungry for increasingly personalised entertainment, satisfied with the illusion of choice. Meanwhile in a parallel universe, Stefan finds himself incapable of choosing his breakfast cereal without external aid.

Meghna Roy is a student at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. 

Featured image credit: Netflix