By 1961, director William Castle had well developed a reputation for drawing in young crowds with interactive, extra-theatrical gimmicks—rigging seats with buzzers, arranging props to fly across the ceiling, and initiating a “fright break” for audience members who would get too scared during his teen-friendly horror flicks. That year, his Victorian horror Mr. Sardonicus went a step further into interactivity: in the film’s final reel Castle himself appeared on screen and asked the audience to vote using glow-in-the-dark cards whether they wanted to punish the film’s villain, or offer him mercy. Theoretically, the projectionist would tally the votes and select the ending by popular demand, giving each audience a unique experience.
There was, however, a catch: Castle never shot the mercy ending. It was a ruse, giving audiences the illusion of control and the rush of excitement that accompanies this brand of participation. Without credible reports of the mercy ending ever screening, Castle would maintain throughout his life that it existed, but that no audience had ever selected it. Since his death in 1977, film historians have failed to ever locate any such version of Mr. Sardonicus, and consensus suggests the poll was just a bluff from the cinema’s finest carnival man. Perhaps the alternate ending was never shot due to the limited budgets of Castle’s independent productions. Maybe he just liked playing a trick on his audiences. Or maybe he wanted to implicate them in his protagonist’s suffering, suggesting that it was them — not him — who chose to let Mr. Sardonicus starve to death.
Today, Castle’s influence has manifested itself in Bandersnatch, a new standalone feature film produced by Netflix as part of the Black Mirror TV series and developed to utilize the uniqueness of streaming technology. Billed as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” film, Bandersnatch allegedly offers thousands of different scene combinations where viewers have the option to make decisions during pivotal moments affecting the outcome of the movie. In action, Bandersnatch is an alluring oddity, both as a look into potential futures new technology can bring to the feature film, and as a fun exercise in gamifying movies.
Unfortunately, a fun exercise is all Bandersnatch seems to be. Much like the bulk of Black Mirror’s “what if technology, but bad?” analysis of the modern world, Bandersnatch doesn’t seem to have anything to say about anything but itself.
The core story is about Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead), a young video game designer in 1984 who becomes obsessed with adapting an epic choose-your-own-adventure novel called “Bandersnatch” written by reclusive sci fi author Jerome F. Davies (played by indie video game designer Jeff Minter). Davies became obsessed with the idea of multiple timelines and murdered his wife. Stefan’s project is commissioned by game company Tuckersoft, which employs his idol, celebrity game designer Colin Ritman (Will Poulter). Throughout Bandersnatch, Stefan visits his therapist Dr. Haynes (Alice Lowe), fights with his widower dad (Craig Parkinson), and — ideally, depending on your playthrough — will lose his mind.
But just as the structural requirements of choose-your-own-adventure novels regularly fail to deliver pathos or depth, Bandersnatch in its desire to entertain its audience is incapable of exploring its themes of free will and control beyond self-satisfied winks to the audience. Characters frequently nod towards the idea that Stefan is being controlled, and Colin in particular appears aware of the fourth wall as he offers soliloquies about multiple timelines. And then that’s it. It’s an interactive film that is about its own interactivity. Deeper theories of recursive time have been devised in hotboxed college dorm rooms.
Bandersnatch is charming, sure, but in the end I can’t help but feel a little cheated. Often, options I hoped would lead to psychedelic wormholes would be unimaginative dead ends (in one scenario, Stefan and Colin take acid and Colin insists one of them jump from the top of a building to enter a new dimension. Make Stefan jump and he just dies. How boring!) Other times Bandersnatch looks to get cute, such as when I was able to tell Stefan I’m a Netflix viewer from the future and that I’m controlling him, a pathway which leads directly to a kung fu fight with the therapist. But the story’s serious routes, where it seeks to probe death and rebirth, are duds. Sure, the movie wants to point fingers at me, the in-control audience, but even Castle handled this audience implication better, with characters who are at least sympathetic. Nothing is learned except that Charlie Brooker must feel really satisfied with himself.
I’ve miffed film critic friends of mine before with this theory, but I do believe the medium of the feature film is an endangered species. The cinema is not going to disappear tomorrow, but we have long taken for granted that the 80 to 180 minute feature film is the ultimate storytelling vehicle for the moving image. But for an artform only about 130 years old, of which only about 90 years have had sound, the idea that the format has peaked is short minded. Just as modes of literature, visual art, and music have wildly evolved over the course of centuries, the moving image is in its infancy and the movies of the future are unimaginable to us today. As people stay home, watch unboxing videos on YouTube, send Snapchats, play video games, watch other people play video games, and binge watch television, the traditional feature film is in a state of, if not of death, then significant flux.
How we entertain ourselves with moving pictures is changing. Vlogging is its own industry, you can just as readily watch two hours of red hot nickel ball videos as you can a two-hour Oscar winner. The idea of what constitutes a movie is unstable, and the internet has brought about the largest societal shift perhaps since the moon landing. Movies will of course be affected.
Bandersnatch is one possible future, one decision branch we could go down — I’m not qualified to make a prediction here. But its concept also isn’t new. The 1967 Czech film Kinoautomat utilized audience vote, succeeding where William Castle failed, to deliver a true-choose-your-own-adventure movie in the pre-digital age. Clue in 1985 famously had three endings, although audiences during the original theatrical run had no control over which version they’d see. Many more obscure, direct-to-video movies have tried similar conceits, all billing themselves as the world’s “first interactive movie.” Even the Hollywood slasher Final Destination 3 had a “Choose Their Fate” version of the movie included as a DVD bonus feature.
Just as television created whole new modes of storytelling unforeseen by cinema, streaming platforms are now allowing filmmakers to take advantage of their unique position as on-demand digital menus available in our living rooms. Black Mirror’s surface-level observations about technology are far from the best use of it, but I doubt it’s the last innovation we’ll see.