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Film Review Thinking outside the box

CALUM BARNES recommends an ingenious experiment in interactive TV

Bandersnatch
Directed by David Slade

STEFAN Butler, aspiring games programmer, is about to pitch his game idea for Bandersnatch, an adaptation of the Choose Your Own Adventure novel to upstart company Tuckersoft.

His Dad is serving him breakfast and asks him to make his mind up: “How about you decide what you want?” No sooner has he uttered this than the words Sugar Puffs and Frosties appear at the bottom of the screen.

It’s the precursor to us also choosing our own adventure in Charlie Brooker’s Bandersnatch, an admirably ambitious labour of love based on the video games of his youth.

Attempts to transcend the strictures of linear narrative are of course not new. Ever since the advent of modernism, writers in particular have sought to experiment with temporality, coming to a zenith with BS Johnson’s infamous The Unfortunates, a loose-leaf book in a box that was to be read in any order.

In Bandersnatch, Brooker draws from the more pulpy strains of this avant-garde sensibility with the Choose Your Own Adventure novels and, of course, video games. But the seemingly infinite permutations of narrative are here fused with the paranoiac visions of Bandersnatch’s author Jerome F Davies, an exaggerated echo of Philip K Dick.

As game-designing savant Colin Ritman, performed with puckish but deadpan finesse by Will Poulter, explains: “There’s a cosmic flowchart that dictates where you can and cannot go” and it’s within that flowchart that the viewer directs Stefan’s progress.

Initially, the choices that we make on behalf of Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) may seem cosmetic but the viewer is continually wrong-footed. Decisions we thought would have a major impact on the course of events turn out to be trivial and the more superficial ones turn out to be surprisingly consequential.

The viewer becomes complicit in the random forces that shape a life but, just as Stefan becomes increasingly paranoid, feeling that he is losing control of his own life, we realise there's only so much we can do to alter his destiny.

The various, but depressingly similar and murderous, ends to his parallel lives mount up, playing in a feedback loop of eternal recurrence until the Netflix credits forcibly kick in.
Are we witnessing the birth of a pioneering new form of television? Most likely posterity will consign this to a historical curio, dated by its currently modish 1980s retrofuturist aesthetic.

But what elevates this from being merely a stylish and entertaining formal exercise is its sensitive, nuanced portrayal of Stefan’s mental state. It’s foregrounded from the outset, signified by the pills and the psychiatric appointments.

As he becomes more immersed in the writing of his game, the more recalcitrant he becomes to the remonstrations of his concerned father. No matter how often you choose to avoid the psychiatrist’s plea for Stefan to talk about the death of his mother, it soon becomes evident that this is a trauma that must be confronted.

The messy stuff of human existence cannot simply be reduced to a problem of coding. Perhaps only in the glitches do better endings for Stefan await.

Bandersnatch is available on Netflix.

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