Freedom In The Unknown: Free Will, Questioning God (and an interactive film)

It’s interesting to speculate how things might have turned out differently. In late December 2011, British television aired a new show called Black Mirror. The publicity promised something dark, possibly comic, with a plot revolving around a pig. It was to be an anthology series – meaning that each episode was unconnected (narratively speaking) to others. When episode one aired, what unfolded was a story about a British Prime Minister blackmailed in to a sex act with a pig which was to be broadcast live on television, in order to save a popular member of the Royal Family who had been kidnapped. It’s had to watch, simultaneously horrifying and funny with a plot twist in the conclusion. The series gained some traction, and two short seasons were made. Then, in 2015, a story broke about real life British Prime Minister David Cameron allegedly doing something similar involving a pig’s head at university – and though there’s little in the way to establish the truth of the story, Black Mirror‘s prophetic legend was established. Netflix picked up the series, and now it’s a genuine cultural force; it’s become something of a tired cliché to wearily sigh that a news story is ‘like something out of Black Mirror‘; but the tiredness of the cliché doesn’t stop people saying it, of course.

So it was that a one-off new, 90 minute episode of the show arrived on Netflix over Christmas. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch has its own unique hook; it’s an interactive film. Throughout the narrative, the viewer is invited to choose one of two courses of action by clicking the trackpad. Technically it’s brilliant; there’s only occasionally a slightly discernible jump in the edit when the choice is made, and buffering never rears its head. The plot itself is, well, somewhat meta: it’s set in the mid-1980s. A young man is writing a computer game called Bandersnatch, based on an epic Choose Your Own Adventure book of the same name, a book which drove its author into dark, paranoid places. This being Black Mirror, the narrative doesn’t stint on shock value. Initially the choices the viewer is presented with seem insignificant  – what sort of breakfast cereal should he eat?; what music should he listen to?. By the time the central character starts holding a conversation with you and directly posing the viewer a question, you’re in a much stranger, more ostensibly troubling place.

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The performances are all fine; though slightly hindered by the format – it’s hard, after all, to act a scene when you don’t know how the scene is going to conclude. But that’s a small gripe, which the viewer learns to let slide; by the time you reach one of the five or so main endings, you’re given the choice of exiting to the credits or returning to certain points in the story to try again. It’s addictive, fun, and has obvious rewatch value. For me, though, despite its many strengths, it left me cold. Yes it’s fun; yes, I even tried to place myself in the narrative (by choosing my own favourite cereal or music or even express mental health issues the way I do in real life), but I still felt strangely distanced from it. This isn’t a unique problem for Black Mirror; for all the show’s cleverness, capacity to shock and undeniable entertainment value, it’s one of those shows that tries hard to be about something without actually having much to say about the thing it’s about. That thing often happens to be free will and/or the effect of technology on the user – but too often interesting ideas are left dangling like that wire behind the television that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Writer Charlie Brooker rarely seems able to make a coherent blend out of big themes and the desire to shock or horrify; the results are too often a stone-in-the-shoe sort of lack of satisfaction, for all the cleverness and gripping material that has gone before.

When it comes to the big question of free will, with which this episode is so clearly concerned, there is much that could have been said that wasn’t. Free will has always been a thorny issue for the Christian; are we puppets on God’s strings, and if so, is He kind or cruel? Do we have the capacity to say no to God? What does ‘predestined’ mean? Poles of interpretation  – as in so many areas – are rarely satisfying or logically coherent. To take the one view, God orders and wills and causes everything – in which case it’s almost a logical impossibility to see Him as good; and you end with such a delicately constructed theological system that if one part is troubled, the whole edifice shakes and threatens to fall apart. Surely God’s more intellectually secure than that? The other pole is to suggest that either we’re in charge of everything – which might explain the messes we’re always in, but rather makes a mockery of God’s wisdom and our need of Him at all; or He doesn’t know and can’t foresee everything. Which is certainly interesting, but makes him somewhat hard to trust.

There are moments in Bandersnatch when the central character is railing at whoever is controlling him, asking for a sign, questioning the choices he’s presented with and wrestling with the situations in which he finds himself. In that sense, he reminds me of Job; but unlike Job, the man at the heart of Bandersnatch can hardly be called blameless. What we can’t criticise him for – because God doesn’t rebuke Job for it either – is his raging or questioning. God seems to positively encourage that. The issue is what we do it when the raging is done; Bandersnatch offers few answers because the writer doesn’t seem able to – and as viewers, picking one of two options, we make for awfully limited gods. Ultimately this may lead to a new kind of visual storytelling; or it may go the way of Betamax video. Who can say yet what the divine storyteller has in mind for interactive film-making?

In the endings I came to in the film, the central character never seems to find peace; every ending leads to question, a self-doubt, a cause for anger or fear or guilt. That’s not how Job ends; at the end of Job’s questioning, he’s met with few answers. He’s not rebuked for asking them, but he is asked by God to accept his place, to learn who’s God and who’s man, and to understand that there are limits to his understandings. It’s not wrong to want to know why things are happening; but he must accept that in the end he will not know  – other than that he is known by the one who knows.

Bandersnatch is, for now, an example of a young art form, testing technology to see where it will bend or break; there may yet be much to come from this format, or there may not. But for now the choices it offers remain strictly binary; even that can send us down potentially mind-bending roads of multiple possibilities which soon fracture under our limited capacities. When we create, we create out of what already exists, with limited possibilities and conclusions available to us; even that is too . The God who invites our questions is big enough to hold our questions and allow us peace in both the asking and the lack of answering. There’s courage in our asking and freedom to be embraced in our unknowing; our divine storyteller comes to se us free, not to control, manipulate and abuse. Bandersnatch gives us a fun, pale imitation of our futile and cruel capacity to play at being god. We’d do well to address our questions to a better writer.

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