Bandersnatch and Bird Box

Madeleine Pownall tunes into the latest offerings causing a stir on Netflix.

There is something inherently psychological about Black Mirror’s latest interactive special Bandersnatch. The feature-length episode allows the viewer to 'choose your own adventure' by selecting the character’s actions throughout a storyline. Frosties or Sugar Puffs for breakfast? Accept or refuse a job offer? Bury or chop up the body?

The choices are presented to the viewer at crucial time points in the story and each one leads to either an alternative ending or a loop back to a previous decision. In this way, the concept is immersive, interactive, and (depending on the choices you make) intensely frustrating. No matter how Bandersnatch is critically received in terms of its cinematic qualities, it's a revolutionary method of story-telling for television (presumably inspired by the classic 'Choose your own adventure' books of the 80s), marking a new era of entertainment.

The most interesting part of Bandersnatch, from a psychological point of view, is how Netflix presents the concept of control and decision-making throughout. The whole gimmicky premise of the story is based entirely on the illusion of control. It gives the viewer a genuine (at times) sense of autonomy and power over the fates of the characters. In one particularly blatant example, we have the option to inform the protagonist that we, Netflix, are controlling his every move. The breaking of this crucial fourth wall gives the viewer a real rush of power and deepens the illusion that we have complete control over the proceeding events. It's clever psychological stuff.

As I see it, Bandersnatch offers commentary on the psychological state of our culture. The fascination with it might be indicative of society’s presentation of and relationship with power. Crucially, it succumbs to our inherent desire for control and decision-making. It takes the shouting-at-the-TV moments from other films and capitalises on them, indulging the viewer in an elaborate and artificial world that allows us to feel involved and important.

Indeed, this paints a rather profound picture of society more generally. Bandersnatch may be entertaining, ground-breaking, and thrilling, but does lead us to question: who is really in control?

Looking for trouble

You are rowing in a precarious wooden boat across river rapids with two small children and a box of birds. If you don’t reach the other side, chances are you will die. The catch? You and the children are wearing blindfolds. The bigger catch? If you remove them, you die. 

The general plot for Netflix’s Bird Box seems, on the surface, pretty self-explanatory. There is a monster/disease/unknown creature roaming around the world. Looking at it kills you. Indeed, this sensory-deprivation genre of horror films has been increasingly popular recently. A Quiet Place (2018) followed a very similar premise, focused instead on sound. Therefore, I was expecting Bird Box to be a similarly eerie, wholly entertaining, jump-athon of a film, following much of the same horror tropes.

Only it’s not that simple, particularly as far as psychology is concerned. In Bird Box, if you look at the ‘monster’, you don’t just die. Instead, your eyes become blue and cloudy, you do a lot of screaming, and you are driven to manically and instantly find a way of committing suicide. This means that the beginning of the film is filled with scenes of bodies flying through windows, people launching themselves in front of moving trucks, and (a lot) of heads banging against things. 

Unfortunately, unlike A Quiet Place, the makers of Bird Box couldn’t make do with a film reliant completely on the creepy sensory element alone. They felt the need to attempt to give the deaths some form of context. We soon learn that there is a psychological mental-health underpinning to the plot. One of the characters, Gary, informs the other survivors that he has seen people without blindfolds who are unaffected by the monster. The people are supposed 'psychos' from a 'mental institution for the criminally insane'. 'These crazy guys weren’t affected like everybody else', cries Gary.

After a couple of twists and turns (and a few more deaths), it seems that the monster has some kind of capacity to show people their worst nightmares (or, in some cases, their best dreams – this too isn’t clear). Those who are experiencing mental health difficulties celebrate the fact that other people can finally witness the world as they do. In this way, there is scope to view this film as successful in breaking barriers to mental health conversations. However, the language choices, dramatisation, and continuously rising death toll mean that any real meaningful messages are stopped firmly in their tracks.

There are other psychological themes, familiar to anyone who enjoys their post-apocalyptic scenarios (the film begins, after all, with a guy called Rick describing a dangerous journey to a safe community). Characters describe myths around encountering our unborn children as other creatures, and 'nature's dirty little trick' in creating attachments with them. Once the children are born, Mallory can't create a 'secure base' for them in attachment terms, as they can't stray from her at all… she names them 'Boy' and 'Girl', and living becomes simply surviving, despite her partner pleading with her that it has to be about more than that: 'it has to be about what it could be'. 'Every single decision I have made has been for them', she counters. Then there's the theme of repression: 'If you don't acknowledge a thing it simply goes away' (including pregnancy). There's what you can't unsee, what you need to see… sometimes it seems Mallory would rather not acknowledge the outside world at all, saying to the birds in the cage 'How did you guys get so lucky?' And there's 'us and them', in how the group respond to strangers: when asked why he cares what his neighbour builds, John Malkovich's character responds by saying 'because I have to look at it'. He's the 'a pessimist is never disappointed' type. But once the group are safe and he shuts the doors, one of them lets the stranger in with 'I remember what it felt like to be outside'…

Overall, Bird Box is enjoyable, perfect for a Sunday night with a cup of tea when you don’t want to put much thought into what you’re watching. However, once you start to scratch the surface of the plot, the portrayals of mental health could end up being the most unnerving aspect.

- Reviewed by Madeleine Pownall, a postgraduate student at the University of Leeds.

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber