A few days back, I watched Bandersnatch on Netflix. This is the first film offering from the makers of the ground-breaking dystopic science-fiction show, Black Mirror. True, to what Black Mirror represents, Bandersnatch, has altered notions of viewership and circulation in the history of the small screen. Set in 1984, the film is simply to say, the story of a teenage computer programmer who attempts to produce a highly conceptual and ambitious computer game, called the Bandersnatch.
What is the most important point of and about the film is the change in the idea of viewership. The viewer is no longer a passive viewer, but an active participant in the history of cinema. The viewer is a ‘proscumer’, a producer as well as a consumer of the film. The viewer is the story teller and the director of the film as the film progresses. From making the decision about what to eat for breakfast to what music to listen to whether commit suicide or murder, the viewer gets to control the narrative, or so it appears.
This is however, not the first foray into ‘make-your-own-adventure’ storytelling. As has been written, there has been much experiments in literature and in Netflix itself . I am not going to go into the history of this genre, but will try and explain what makes Bandersnatch a one-of-its kind in the history of cinema that will mark the history of not just cinema but also digital humanities.
Bandersnatch is not the first Black Mirror special during Christmas season. In 2014, the series showed its first special, White Christmas. After four years, it has come with a new special which has, as an understatement, shaken all its viewers. This is the first ‘film’ by the creators of the show and was streamed on Netflix globally on 28th December 2018. On the first glance, it looks the usual Black Mirror staple where the human fear of being controlled or annihilated by technology plays out. But, that is where the similarities with any other Black Mirror offering ends.
I got to know about Bandersnatch when I chanced upon its trailer on Boxing Day on the show’s Facebook page. Like any other devout fan of the show, I was eagerly looking forward to the ‘film’. On the appointed day, I opened the Netflix website. I hovered my mouse over the Bandersnatch icon. The blurb showed that its about 90 minutes long. This appeared to me as usual. A Black Mirror special is not really of any longer duration. Bandersnatch, however, proved to be anything but the usual. It took me over three hours to finally ‘finish’ the film and over 90 minutes to actually understand that the director of the story is not David Slade. The film starts to offer you the option to ‘choose’ the moment you click the play button. Naive me, thought it is a new Black Mirror style of presenting the story. Although, the lack of the time code struck me as something odd, it still didn’t strike me till I was halfway through the film, that it was me who had the control of the story and be an active consumer of it. Much has already been written about the many endings of the show, the gargantuan amount of permutations and combinations of the film, including the final duration of the film. What I would like to concentrate on is not the possible or plausible endings, but the treatment of the film and the philosophy of the one figure who drives the film — how Charlie Brooker, the writer, doffs his hat to one of the most influential writer of science fiction in the 20th century and the one historical period that has fascinated most of the science fiction visualisations of the 21st century — the decade dominated by garish fashion and big hairdos, the 1980s.
Bandersnatch is not a film, it is a concept, much like the conceptual video game that drives the core of the film. The term Bandersnatch was invented by Lewis Carroll, the writer of Alice in Wonderland. Carroll wrote about the Bandersnatch, a fantastical creature in 1872 in his book, Through the Looking- Glass. The creature does not really have a fixed form, it is never described in its totality by Carroll. It is just supposed to just have a long neck and jaws that snap and humans are supposed to steer clear of it. This obscure fantastical creature has had a long digital afterlife, however.
There are two driving forces for the film — Philip K Dick or PKD as he is known and revered, and the pastiche and nostalgia for the 1980s.
Bandersnatch, the eponymous title of the film is also a conceptual game that the lead of the film, 19 year old computer programmer, Stefan is attempting to develop. The game is based on a science fiction book by the same name written by an author called Jerome F Davies. Davies is described as a visionary genius who lost his mind and ended up killing his wife, a somewhat similar situation that Stefan will probably find himself into, depending on the choices the viewer chooses.
Before talking about PKD, it is necessary to start the analysis with the 1980s.
Bandersnatch shows the world of the 1980s in UK. It is a literal act of remembering and nostalgia as the writer of Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker grew up in the same period in Oxfordshire. The game that is in focus here is not a complex variety as those seen in Playstations, but what we may now term as a basic computer game. Millennials like us, grew up playing dozens of computer games such as Road Rash, Contra, Street Fighter, and of course, Mario. The film mirrors reality and pastiche on the 1980s, and more specifically, 1984.
1984 was the year when an actual computer game called Bandersnatch was under development by one of the biggest game companies around that time, Imagine Software, aimed for a Christmas release. The BBC documentary ‘Commercial Break’ looks at the computer game industry, the ecology of production, circulation and piracy. It also traces the development of the game and much like in the Netflix film, how the game never got released and finally led to the company’s liquidation. The mise-en-scene of the film, especially when it comes to the set design of Tuckersoft, the company producing the game, is eerily similar to the real life offices of Imagine and Ocean Software, the other company that the BBC documentary focuses.
Bandersnatch, the film also mirrors the reality of the gaming industry in 1984. As is shown in the documentary, there were teenage prodigious game programmers who were employed in the big game companies. And much like the star programmer, Colin, in the film, there were young star programmers in the industry who led the fast life and earned enough to buy super cars and super bikes. Much like how Imagine Software spent millions in inventing new hardware along with the code for the game, Netflix too has spent a huge amount of money in enabling viewers to be able to access the film’s format.
What does not miss the eye of the viewer is the pastiche for the 1980s in the film. As an avid lovers of contemporary science-fiction series and films, this pastiche here is not really new. Charlie Brooker engaged with the pastiche in one of the earlier Black Mirror episodes, the fabulously done San Junipero in 2016. The episode, is loosely described by many as a lesbian love story. For a cinephile like me, however, it represented much more. Brooker engaged with genre film conventions in this episode and especially with the road film genre. I look at San Junipero as a utopic version of the 1991 Ridley Scott film, Thelma and Louise. The road movie as a genre leads to tragic circumstances and it was apparent in Thelma and Louise as well. In San Junipero, the trope of the genre is turned around and instead Brooker promises us a utopia in the digital afterlife due to technology. It is one of the very few films and even episodes in the entire Black Mirror series where there is a sort of happy ending unlike the dystopia that technology and artificial intelligence leads us to. Pastiche for the 1980s is also an overriding theme in another successful science-fiction/horror series on Netflix, Stranger Things directed by the Duffer Brothers. This series too starts in 1984 in a fictional town called Hawkins in the US state of Indiana. The series has had two seasons so far and is a science fiction fan favourite. It has led to a number of cosplays, memes and other fan fiction. The series too is dominated by everything 1980s in the Midwest. The music is a serious nostalgic journey for lovers of 1980s pop music and features among others Donna Summers, Cyndi Lauper, The Police, Duran Duran among others. Music in Bandersnatch too is seeped with nostalgia and music by the not very globally popular British band, Thomson Brothers, play in the film.
However, the one film that is much closer to its theme to Bandersnatch, is the understated 2013 film, Computer Chess. Directed by Andrew Bujalski, the film is spatially and temporally, the predecessor to Bandersnatch. Set in 1980, the film shows a congregation of computer geeks who meet for an annual computer chess competition. Bujalski shot the entire film in analog technology (the Sony 1968 AVC-3260 B&W cameras) that was widely used in the early 1980s. The result is a look which is reminiscent of the early Doordarshan programs for us Indian millennials.
What this pastiche and nostalgia, including technology for the 1980s show a return to pre-digital. A sort of rebellion in a way. An anti-millennial move, if I may say. Futurist Alvin Toffler coined the term ‘futureshock’ in his influential 1970 book by the same name. The term describes a psychological state for those ‘who are faced with too much change in too short a period of time”. What contemporary science fiction filmmakers are using as a trope is to apply future shock but in a time and space left behind rather than in the future. There is a fetishisation of the analog and the pre-digital era as one that could be both utopic and dystopic, human and nonhuman. This is a method in which an archive of the 1980s is being recreated. But, as David Bates writes (2010), the archive is only a partial truth. What then do we do with our memories? Memories of those who lived in the 1980s and those of the millenials who have experienced the 1980s through pastiche?
Memory is crucial in this engagement as it becomes one of the key objects in the film as well. Viewers keep getting the opportunity to time travel and help Stefan out of a certain situation. Time travel here, means altering of the memory. Modernity has been characterized by a ‘crisis of memory’ as argued by Ina Blom (2017). She argues that there has been a ‘dissolution of time in an age of simulation and high-speed information networks’. And this has been aptly represented in the film, which the rest of the films mentioned here have also attempted in their own ways. However, Bandersnatch is most successful in this attention economy since, there is literal movement of the characters across time and space and to which, us, the viewers have absolute control over. This is what makes the film special. It not only has intervened in cinema viewing practices with a unique perspective but also gives us the impression that we are in control. Control and surveillance have been two themes that has been constant in the works of one of the greatest science fiction writers of all times, Philip K Dick.The film employs many of the themes recurring in the works of Dick.
Jerome K Davies, the writer of the book, as is shown in the film has been developed on Dick’s persona. Although, Dick did not shoot himself or kill anyone, he obssesed his whole life over surveillance and on conspiracy theories. Many of Dick’s works have been adapted for the big screen, including Blade Runner, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly etc. Other directors such as the Wachowski Sisters have been influenced by Dick for their Matrix series. Michel Gondry too have cited Dick as an influence in making his masterpiece, An Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. A series, The Man on High Castle, based on his book name with the same title is currently being screened on Netflix. However, one of Dick’s most important and critical book, Ubik written in 1969, has not been adapted so far. There have been many attempts over the decades by directors such as Gondry have never culminated into reality. The reference to Dick or PKD as he is known by his fans, is referenced when there is a large poster of Ubik’s book cover on the wall of Colin’s home. Ubik, is Dick’s dystopia of a higher form of intelligence finally taking over control of human kind. The book also engages strongly with ideas about who or what is human. The control that we are allowed to exercise in Bandersnatch, is if we flip the coin, an exercise in surveillance too. We are the voyeurs who peek deep into Stefan’s mind and life. But, did we really make the choice? Did we actually direct the film?
These are some of the poignant questions that the film leaves us with. Bandersnatch is much more than just a film. As a review in The Guardian correctly terms is as a ‘meta-masterpiece’. The film is indeed exploring the possibilities of being a meta narrative of our contemporary concerns. Perhaps, the apt way to end this piece is with a quote from Ubik, which throws us further into the abyss of an unknown and highly controlled future.
“I am Ubik. Before the universe was, I am. I made the suns. I made the worlds. I created the lives and the places they inhabit; I move them here, I put them there. They go as I say, then do as I tell them. I am the word and my name is never spoken, the name which no one knows. I am called Ubik, but that is not my name. I am. I shall always be.”