Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and The Illusion of Freewill – Learning with Pop Culture

SPOILER WARNING FOR THE FILM! GO WATCH IT AND THEN COME BACK.

The British anthology series Black Mirror has been a critical success since its premiere back in 2011 thanks, in no small part, to the dozens of genius directors, screenwriters, and actors that have brought to life the mind-bending stories we’ve come to enjoy from the series.

But with Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018), the series’ first venture into making a full-length film, Black Mirror has gained new acclaim for its use of interactive film-making to deliver more of its signature brand of sci-fi thriller in a gritty new package.

Background: © Netflix

The interactive film was directed by David Slade, who also directed two other episodes for the series, as well as a number of episodes of American Gods (2017-), Breaking Bad (2008-2013), and Hannibal (2013-2015). The script was written by Charlie Brooker, who co-created Black Mirror and penned many of its stories. Bringing Slade and Brooker’s vision to life are actors Fionn Whitehead (Stefan), Will Poulter (Colin), Craig Parkinson (Peter), Alice Lowe (Dr. Haynes), and Asim Chaudhry (Thakur).

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch contains elements of horror, comedy, drama, and sci-fi. It centers on the themes of freewill and determinism while also tackling topics such as parallel timelines, madness, and violence. And it uses meta-commentary, self-reference, and an unreliable narrator to tell its post-modernistic story of an aspiring video game developer who goes through a psychotic breakdown when he slowly learns that his inspired video game is much more difficult to make than expected.

The Bandersnatch from Lewis Carroll’s original work. | Art by: Peter Newell

The title “Bandersnatch”, in the context of the film and the fictional book it’s based on, refers to the antagonistic Pax demon, the lion-like beast that appears in both Jerome F. Davies’s interactive novel of the same name and the video game that Stefan looks to develop. But the term bandersnatch originally comes from a character created by Lewis Carroll for his 1871 nonsense poem Jabberwocky, which was included in the author’s novel Through the Looking Glass (1871), the sequel to his iconic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865).

The film makes many allusions to Caroll’s work, including the white rabbit from Stefan’s childhood and the seemingly-insane, drug-fueled ramblings of Collin, which is reminiscent of the Mad Hatter’s tea parties in Wonderland.

Like Alice, Stefan is forced to rethink his concept of what is real. Collin bombards him with the paradoxical notion that nothing his real and, yet, everything is real. For the nihilistic Collin, choices are meaningless because, for every choice, there exists a parallel world where another choice was made and another where no choice was made. Nihilism is the belief that life has no meaning; no value, purpose, and end goal. It simply is. And he sends this concept home by referencing the idea of multiple timelines or a multiverse, where every possible choice we can make is a choice that we have made. Just not in the observable universe or timeline we currently follow. This has implications in Quantum Mechanics and physics, but I’m not about to ramble on about that because I don’t wanna have to read two whole Wikipedia pages of scientific concepts. (But, feel free.)

For the nihilistic Collin, choices are meaningless | © Netflix

In the context of Collin’s viewpoint, no choice we make actually matters because every alternate choice has already been made. Whether it be killing your own family member or committing suicide, it doesn’t matter because, in some other timeline, you didn’t do that. Nothing matters. Not even death.

This bleak concept of futile fruitlessness is actually quite relevant in the case of Stefan, who not only is making a game that depends on the aforementioned concepts, but also himself exists in multiple timelines. Timelines of our choosing. For Collin, life is like a game. If you make a wrong move, you can start over because there is more than one timeline. Or as he puts it:

“How many times have you seen Pac-Man die? It doesn’t bother him.”

This luxury of being able to redo choices and replay situations removes the meaning of those both those things. Why should one seemingly consequential choice matter when every choice can, has, and will be made?

In contrast to Collin’s ideas of determinism and nihilism is Dr. Haynes’ suggestions that freewill does exist. Dr. Haynes is a existentialist, someone who beliefs that people are free to choose their own purpose by acting through their own freewill. She believes in a sort of cosmic libertarianism. But since this is Black Mirror, things are never as sunshine and rainbows as that. Whenever Stefan attempts to act against the deterministic force, he only falls onto the hands of fate. An example of this is when Collin tries to save his mother by changing the past but only succeeds in getting them both killed.

Whenever Stefan attempts to act against the deterministic force, he only falls onto the hands of fate. | © Netflix

So, it’s no mistake that the only “happy” ending to Collin’s story is when he finally relieves himself of the pressure of creating a truly “free” game and, instead, opts to create a choose-your-own-adventure game to only gives player’s the illusion of freewill.

In a way, this is what Black Mirror: Bandersnatch does to us who view/play this interactive film. We are made to think that we are the puppet masters of Stefan by means of meta-commentary and an experience that constantly reminds us that this is all a game; to the point where Stefan begins to refer to us, further removing us from what should be a traditionally immersive experience. But this distancing from fiction distracts us from the fact that we are not free to make Stefan’s choices or determine his final fate, because like Stefan we are limited to the boundaries that the film provides us. We are railroaded through what we think is a totally open-ended story when, in reality, we are simply restricted to the choices given to us by a prompt; choices that, ultimately, don’t matter because we make every possible choice anyway. Therefore, as we are constantly reminded, nothing we choose for Stefan truly matters because we are not Stefan and this is a game.

At some point, after the barrages of respawns and load screens, death loses meaning. Ask yourself, at what point did you stop caring about Stefan and just wanted to see as many endings as you can?

You went from playing Stefan to playing the deterministic force that drives him toward madness and violence. |
© Netflix

If I had to guess, you probably stopped caring after the third or fourth play through. This is, of course, through no fault of your own. By then, you’ve probably removed yourself from embodying the role of main character. You went from playing Stefan to playing the deterministic force that drives him toward madness and violence.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, like any Black Mirror episode, offers much to think about and, of course, warns of the impending dangers of technology, in one way or another. Regardless of subject matter, the question of whether the film did a good job of delivering its themes is, I suppose, up to you. But in the end, the question that Black Mirror: Bandersnatch posits is this: Are we truly free?

© Netflix

Writer’s note: Thank you for reading through this article. I enjoyed writing it. Please do like and share. It really helps. And please leave your thoughts and comments about the article and the film on the comments below. If you’re interested in more of these choose-your-own-adventure-type games, then I suggest playing Life is Strange (2015), Telltale’s The Walking Dead (2012), Detroit: Become Human (2018), and number of other games that work on the same choice-based narrative gameplay as Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

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