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SCREEN THEMES: Aquaman vs Bandersnatch

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Is interactivity the future of TV, or do we just want to see bright colours and lots of punching? Entertainment editor John Turnbull checks out the latest DC universe movie and what could be the next step in personalised entertainment.

Aquaman (2018)

Directed by James Wan

Australian director James Wan has come a long way from the time he locked his friend in a filthy bathroom and filmed the results. The 2004 release of Saw changed the horror movie landscape, sparking the rise of the boundary-pushing and often imagination-lacking "torture porn" sub-genre. It took Wan just over 10 years to break out of the horror movie ghetto, scoring the directing role on the ludicrously entertaining franchise pic Furious 7.

It was the massive international success of Furious 7 (taking over $1.5 billion at the box office) that brought Wan to the attention of DC/Warner Brothers, who had struggled to launch the DC cinematic universe, despite owning some of the biggest superhero licenses in history. With the notable exception of Wonder Woman, DC universe films were dark and dreary affairs, lacking both the humour and the human element of their Marvel Universe competition. Aquaman  has changed all that.

Starring Jason Momoa as the title character, Aquaman tells the story of half-human, half-Atlantean bruiser Arthur Curry, who wants nothing more than to be left alone to drink with his dad (Temuera Morrison), but is drawn into the struggle to stop an impending war between Atlantis and the surface world. He is joined on his quest by Princess Mera (Amber Heard) who has the power to control water, but not to express emotions other than surprise, apparently. Joining this duo are an accomplished cast including Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Willem Dafoe and Nicole Kidman, who somehow managed not to age a day while Morrison aged 25 years. Do they have botox in Atlantis?

Momoa is clearly having a lot of fun with the role, and the rest of the cast do well acting against what must have been a nightmare of green screens and people in motion capture suits. At the end of the day, Aquaman is a fun movie that doesn’t involve any heavy thinking. Plot holes abound, but if you like bright colours and frequent physics-defying action sequences, Aquaman is definitely the movie for you.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018)

Directed by David Slade

Do you remember the first 3D movie you ever saw? Readers of a certain vintage will share my memory of putting on a pair of flimsy cardboard glasses with one blue and one red lens, then being treated to a "3D" experience that didn’t look that great and probably gave you a headache.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is roughly equivalent to those early 3D movies, in that it’s an interesting new concept, but the actual execution leaves a lot to be desired. The basic premise is that you get to decide on a number of key decisions in a mopey game designer’s life, with each decision sending the story down a unique and different path. Except a lot of the paths are pretty much the same and many of the decisions take you in a narrative circle leading you to make the "right" choice. That’s right, it’s like a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book, or a pretty basic video game, which is sort of the point.

Starring Fionn Whitehead as Stefan, the aforementioned mopey game designer, Bandersnatch is set in the 1980s, allowing the writers to have fun with tropes of the decade, including the important decision of whether you should listen to the Thompson Twins or the latest compilation tape. Later in the episode the choices become a little more disturbing, including the choice of whether or not to kill your father, which made this fun to watch with my son (he chose no, in case you’re interested).

Like most Black Mirror episodes, Bandersnatch looks at the impact of technology on our lives, but it isn’t anywhere near one of the best from this perspective. Once you get past the novelty of choosing a direction for Stefan, the story itself is rather boring, although it does go pretty bonkers towards the end if you make the right (or wrong) choices.

Probably the worst thing about Bandersnatch is the cynical thinking behind its creation: if Netflix can demonstrate to advertisers that their viewers are happy to interact with brands within a program, it allows them to include specific products aimed to appeal to individual viewers, a technique that some marketers refer to as "programmatic product placement". This would allow Netflix to attract advertising revenue without running traditional 30 second spots – targeted directly at you based on all of the viewing choices you’ve ever made…

The Verdict

While wildly different entertainment experiences, Aquaman and Bandersnatch share the common theme of free will versus predetermination — do any of the choices we make in life really matter, or are we all following a path towards our inevitable destiny?

Despite Aquaman’s frequent protestations, it’s his destiny to become king of Atlantis, just as it’s Stefan’s destiny to remain a socially awkward, bedroom dwelling weirdo, irrespective of whether his game is a success or not.

Aquaman: 8/10

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch: 6/10

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