Watching the Netflix “interactive” film Bandersnatch, from the popular anthology Black Mirror made me revisit some of the best episodes of the cult series. Black Mirror is arguably the best anthology series and one of the finest of science-fiction available on Netflix.
The first season of the British series started streaming on Channel-4 in the United Kingdom in 2011 and the next in 2013. Netflix acquired the series and streamed it worldwide in 2016, dividing the episodes into four seasons of six episodes each. As the viewership numbers swell, the interactive film Bandersnatch was released in 2018 and the fifth season in mid-2019.
Though almost a decade old, what makes Black Mirror still a compelling watch is its uncompromised production values coupled with the well-scripted, timeless plots.
As years pass, the alternate present that the films in the series presented became more and more relevant, convincing and near. In short, if you are someone who searches the streaming platforms for good thrillers, Black Mirror is a one-stop shop.
Its creator Charlie Brooker and collaborators such as Annabel Jones were said to be fascinated about imagining the myriad ways in which modern technology may alter the future of humanity. Brooker was inspired by the classic American TV series , The Twilight Zone, which was hugely popular in the 1960s. Its creator Rod Serling combined his interest in pulp fiction novels and his criticisms against the government, racism, war and the society in general to tell compelling stories that were set in an imaginary time and space, smartly bypassing the censors. As a fitting tribute to The Twilight Zone, the fantasies that Brooker and team put down on paper resulted in some amazing episodes with compelling drama and hard-hitting commentary, which the fans of dystopia, science fiction, thriller, satire and drama followed alike.
Brooker had introduced Black Mirror as: “If technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the side effects? This area – between delight and discomfort – is where Black Mirror, my new drama series, is set. The ‘black mirror’ of the title is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.”
As it is an anthology, each episode is a complete film. There is little or no common elements or backdrop that connect one part to another. No actor in a major role appears in more than one film in the series. A big part of the credit for this must go to the production design and casting departments that have done an astounding job.
Many episodes of Black Mirror had won high ratings and prestigious television awards when they were first aired on TV in the UK and on OTT worldwide. If you have not watched it already, read on to find out why binge-watching this is totally worth the time.
In Bandersnatch, a teenage programmer works on converting a novel with alternate plot directions into an interactive computer game in the 90s, when video games were popular. In that process, the creator of the game bets big on the idea of free will, letting the players define the tastes of the characters and make life-altering decisions on behalf of them at every stage.
As viewers of this film, we choose what the protagonist and other characters should do at every major plot points that drives the protagonist nuts, who is already under psychiatric counselling. In an alternate ending that you can choose vis-à-vis the other, violent climax, the concept of free will that he had made the key characteristic of the new path breaking game is compromised to serve the business interests and deadlines.
In the explosive first episode, The National Anthem, the British Prime Minister is being blackmailed into having sex with a pig. Coincidentally, four years after the episode aired, allegations were published that David Cameron, who was the then Prime Minister, was made to enact a compromising position with a dead pig as part of a university initiation. In another dark political satire titled The Waldo Moment, in which a vulgar animated character interviews politicians and ends up running in the presidential race, parallels were drawn between its characters with UK PM Boris Johnson and later with US President Donald Trump.
The award-winning part, San Junipero, is a same-sex love story that shows technology in a positive light, probably one of the rare ones to do so in the series. In Black Museum, a visitor to an unusual museum that displays criminological artefacts is narrated three different back stories related to the artefacts. The museum curator, once a neurological research recruiter, had a big role to play in the lives of those people who have become a mere object and story for the visitors to scoff at. The flashback reveals the violation of privacy, denial of agency, extreme sadism and racism that the characters on display had to go through.
In the nihilistic dark thriller titled Shut Up and Dance, an unknown hacker blackmails a teenage boy to commit a series of criminal acts during the course of the day by threatening to release a private video over the Internet.
The melancholic film part of the second series, Be Right Back, tells the story of Martha, a young woman who loses her partner Ash in a car accident. She reluctantly agrees to try a new artificial intelligence service, which her friend suggests as a way to deal with the loss, through which she can feel the physical presence of Ash and constantly communicate with him. Using all of Ash’s past online communications and social media profiles, the service creates a new virtual Ash that looks, feels and talks like her dead boyfriend and continuously updates its knowledge and behaviour by learning from the interactions.
Nosedive presents a world where people rate each other on a scale of five stars for their every interaction. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The ratings continually define their relationships and impact their socio-economic status. Lacie who is overly obsessed with her ratings latches on to an opportunity to boost her ratings when her highly rated childhood friend chooses her as the maid of honour for her grand wedding. Lacie makes it to the wedding after a long trip during which she suffers many hardships but her ratings nosedive with the events that follow. Through dark humour, the episode underscores the huge emotional investment people make on social media and their obsession with higher ratings and stature.
White Christmas, one of the widely acclaimed episodes, explores cyberstalking and punishment in the age of total domination of artificial intelligence. Hated in the Nation, on the other hand, shows the ugly side of social media in the light of a criminal investigation that uncovers the deaths caused by it.
Black Mirror cannot be easily dismissed as a utopian scaremongering experiment because the stories are extensions of our current realities. Ranging from the dangers of surveillance and the unethical use of artificial intelligence to a more outlandish stealing of co-workers’ DNA to enslave them permanently, the films part of the anthology give you a 360-degree view of what kind of a monster the evolving technology can become. The mirror that Charles Brooker holds to the technology-obsessed society is too compelling to miss. The future is now!
(Dress Circle is a weekly column on films. The author is a communication professional and film enthusiast. Read his past works here.)