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'Black Mirror' plays gimmicky game with 'Bandersnatch'

The promise of interactive entertainment has usually outstripped the reality, which winds up feeling like a ...

Posted: Dec 29, 2018 3:59 PM
Updated: Dec 29, 2018 3:59 PM

The promise of interactive entertainment has usually outstripped the reality, which winds up feeling like a gimmick. Netflix has picked the right vehicle to test those waters with the macabre anthology "Black Mirror," but its stealthily dropped effort "Bandersnatch" proves to be more of an interesting experiment than a creatively successful one.

The bottom line is that despite the promise of becoming a participant in the storytelling process -- and the allure of wedding games and narrative fiction -- a well-told tale, watched passively, still trumps a so-so one that fosters the game-like illusion of putting the viewer in the driver's seat.

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Netflix has actually dabbled with this sort of choose-your-own-adventure formula within various children's programs, operating largely under the radar. With "Black Mirror," the technology gets a showy poster child, presenting what's described as an "immersive entertainment experience ... where you control the story."

Whatever enthusiasm that musters, however, begins to fizzle as the experience unfolds, unspooling what's perhaps of necessity a wildly familiar plot for a psychological thriller. In this case, it's a young man named Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), a videogame developer in 1984, who begins to wonder if someone is controlling or manipulating him, with the alternative being that -- having lost his mother at any early age -- he's simply going mad.

There's a bit more to it than that, but the story is frankly secondary to the viewer's ability to navigate toward various outcomes and multiple separate endings. That's accomplished by making choices along the way, with a black stripe appearing across the screen offering options as simple as what song Stefan plays to whether he opts to "Accept" or "Refuse" an offer.

The story weaves in the notion that the choices we make essentially create alternative realities, but in a way not much deeper than the historical musings of teenagers in smoke-filled rooms. And while the producers encourage the viewer to try different options and explore potential avenues of the story, the manner in which the narrative keeps circling back to the main through-line becomes numbing and repetitive the longer the experience drags on.

The logistics of "Bandersnatch" thus become the most intriguing aspect of it. Hours of footage were shot to accommodate the different possibilities, and the movie can run from 40-some-odd minutes to 90 or more depending on the paths taken.

By that measure, give everyone associated with the stunt -- including "Black Mirror" creator Charlie Brooker -- an "A" for effort, but maybe a "C+" for the execution.

If nothing else, Netflix has demonstrated that the service has a shiny new toy at its disposal, having been clever about using surprise premieres to spur excitement for projects that often don't really merit much (see "The Cloverfield Paradox," which abruptly dropped after the Super Bowl).

"Bandersnatch" is worth watching -- or perhaps studying -- as a snapshot of where interactivity might be heading. But like many a holiday gift, the temptation after one or two plays is to put the thing away and leave it there until the next iteration comes out.

"Black Mirror: Bandersnatch" is currently playing on Netflix.

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