Bandersnatch (2018) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Bandersnatch (2018)

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The Black Mirror shatters, and aspiring game developer Stefan struggles to make sense of the pieces. As he celebrates the opportunity of a lifetime his world becomes tinged with deja vu, and the world he lives in may be one of many where happiness is a long shot. Charlie Brooker writes Bandersnatch, directed by David Slade, and stars Fionn Whitehead and Will Poulter.

Calling Bandersnatch experimental is a generous stretch of the term I'm not inclined to grant. It's not even experimental for Netflix as they released a choose-your-own-adventure edit of Telltale's Minecraft: Story Mode game as an interactive film. While Minecraft: Story Mode ended up highlighting the shortcomings of Telltale's offering as a videogame by showing just how little player interaction mattered, Bandersnatch takes things into a further pit of by not even having the courage of adhering to its own conceit.

I played the part of Bartleby the Scrivener and called Bandersnatch's bluff about its choose-your-own-adventure structure by refusing to choose. It took only two minutes for the heavily advertised choice to mean nothing. In the first of multiple bludgeoning explanations about choosing, the narrator explained that I needed to click on an option. I declined, and the narrator once again told me to click. When the timer ran out Bandersnatch had its first and only chance to let me know it meant business by closing itself. After all, if I didn't want to play along there's no reason they needed to cater to me. Instead Bandersnatch began and about two boring hours later it finally came to a limp close.

It's not cowardly - that's a descriptor for more ambitious films - instead it is pandering to our need not for artistic fulfillment but to just have something to say. "What ending did you get?" is a pointless question to ask when Bandersnatch will rewind itself to play out previous choices if you take refuse to choose. Clicking here and there in a vain attempt to get some creative insight out of Bandersnatch is foolish because the advertised way of taking the product in is to just do it again.

This might not be as damning a case against Bandersnatch's creative emptiness if any of the branches had something interesting to provide. Instead the mental problems of Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) are fodder to reference better films and videogames. Stefan's strained home life and glimpses into the loose nature of time recall Donnie Darko drained of humor or enigmatic first time viewing. Instead we get more blunt exposition courtesy of Colin (Will Poulter, a talent in need of better material) openly opining about the adaptive paths of time and alternate dimensions. Writer Charlie Brooker is no stranger to heavy handed metaphors but this time he's skipped allusion and jumped straight to expressing his ideas outright.

Approaching Bandersnatch as a videogame doesn't fare much better since "player" interactivity is meaningless. An example of live action video gameplay done well can be found in Her Story, a game where you look for clues and clip together snippets of several interviews to determine what happened to the protagonist. Her Story, for all its similar faults in diminishing mental illness, directly interrogates how the player's memory is as unreliable as the protagonist's and asks for understanding based on mutual incomprehension of our mental abilities. That ends by asking if the player understands. Bandersnatch ends by putting a cut to credits option in the top right hand corner of the screen and continuing along its merry way. It ends only insofar as it asks you if you want to give up and move on to something fulfilling.

There is precisely one ending that cuts against the monotonous experience where Stefan finds a way to sever the loop. Then Bandersnatch renders this choice similarly meaningless by rewinding the narrative to play the other options yet again. Until that point I was content to laugh at Bandersnatch's ridiculous self-seriousness in thinking any of this was worthwhile and started getting angry instead. Bandersnatch wasted my time and Brooker's masturbatory self-referencing Easter eggs do nothing but remind the audience that he had something to say earlier in his career. Now, lacking clarity of purpose in target for his heavy writing, he created a digital distraction.

Director David Slade does his best to make Bandersnatch interesting as a piece of silent art. His murky colors swirl together while remaining distinct and striking, and ominous buildups to Stefan's paranoid paper trail shock and amuse in a way that had me laughing with Bandersnatch instead of at it. The soundtrack is a separate matter with heavy rotation '80s cuts present as a matter of reminding us Bandersnatch takes place in the '80s over providing emotional texture (plus, if you want '80s nostalgia in your soundtrack, go with Atomic Blonde instead).

Outside Slade's direction Bandersnatch's thudding mediocrity isn't even memorable. When Brooker is at his Black Mirror worst, which I'd put at "Nosedive" or "The Waldo Moment", he at least commits thoroughly to the premise so we end up with literal cartoon mascots as fascist dictators. Bandersnatch is so preemptively bored with itself that it can't even commit to the bit at the start, and presents that option to exit to credits as a lazy out to a tired work. He'll do better, as it's unlikely he'll do much worse than Bandersnatch.

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Bandersnatch (2018)

Directed by David Slade.
Written by Charlie Brooker.
Starring Fionn Whitehead and Will Poulter.

Posted by Andrew

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