Why Netflix is Bringing Back 80’s Tech
Developing the much anticipated 5th instalment of Black Mirror was much more complicated than simply writing a script. The ‘choose your own adventure’ style of Bandersnatch meant that Netflix had to build a new internal software called Branch Manager to house and allow the sprawling non-linear narrative to actualise. We, the viewers, make choices for Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) and as such help to develop his character and the plot which ultimately leads to one of multiple possible endings.
Innovative yes, but to only look at the new technology involved in the creation of Bandersnatch is totally besides the point. So then, what is the point exactly? Is it, as many have claimed, a comment on the illusion of free will - for the central character Stefan as well as those clicking the buttons - or perhaps a gimmicky start to the future of interactive media? Critics are torn. To look at Bandersnatch as a singularity is thought provoking at best, but when viewed alongside other shows from the last year it’s the first step in a trip down the proverbial rabbit hole.
It seems the televised world is suddenly obsessed with the 1980s; Susie Sink & co playing arcade games and running from Stephen King inspired extra-terrestrials in Stranger Things, glitter clad girl wrestlers to the backdrop of Journey in GLOW, Jonah HIll and Emma Stone plugging into retro beige box computers and dreaming of having perms in acclaimed Maniac. Bandersnatch is just another to add to this list of modern iterations, but this chapter takes a darker turn, cementing the return of the biggest cultural legacy of the decade; Cyberpunk.
Defined as a “a subgenre of science fiction in a futuristic setting that tends to focus on a combination of lowlife and high tech” Cyberpunk has until recently been about as mainstream as nerdy sci-fi related genres can get, not very. But, with its focus on “advanced technological and scientific achievements, such as artificial intelligence and cybernetics, juxtaposed with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order” it’s becoming one of the most relevant visual means by which to display modern narratives.
I mean, we’re certainly not reviving the 80s aesthetic for sartorial reasons. The New York Times let out a cry for help the moment it realised that shoulder pads and block colour might be returning. There’s also, lest we forget, a whole generation permanently afflicted to have one bicep larger than the other from the trauma of carrying around a 2lb mobile phone everyday since 1983. It’s being revived because beige box computers, neon signs, pixels and computer games are the visual signals for dystopian futures.
It’s no coincidence that Blade Runner 2049 - the long anticipated revival of the 1982 classic - was released in 2017 in the midst of climate change hysteria, when right-winged governments were starting to prevail and artificial intelligence finally became a common reality. It’s also not a mistake to see Colin’s girlfriend Kitty in Bandersnatch, with her orange hair, white face makeup and dark eyes as a clear-cut reference to Daryl Hannah as female replicant Pris Stratton. A story about voyeuristic governments, conspiracy theories, emerging technologies and quests involving non-human entities... Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror’s creator, knew the breadcrumbs he was leaving.
Then there’s the other take; good old nostalgia. Maybe it’s not all doom and gloom. Maybe the readiness to see the return of a 1980s aesthetic as dystopian is a reflex born of liberal news consumption. Perhaps instead, the inceptive experience of Netflix broadcasting low-tech realities is a call for the reversal of all the steps forward that tech has given us. Yes we can now order noodles to our beds at 2AM but we also can’t tell what’s real and what isn’t. With antiquated tech, it wasn’t sophisticated enough to fool us. There was a line. A line in the pixelated sand between what was real and what was on the screen. Maybe Stranger Things, GLOW, Maniac, retro instagram filters, Armie Hammer dancing to the Psychedelic Furs and the sudden surge in playing retro computer games are an escapist fantasy to a simpler time.
Trends making a comeback is nothing new - the past year has seen tiny coloured glasses of the 1990s slide into our wardrobes quicker than a gang of hungry moths - but trends being seen as passing fads, over in a matter of weeks, IS new. A cycle of constant accessibility and instant gratification has lead to trends seeming flippant; things to buy rather than experience. True cultural change is slow. It’s not about Madonna’s cone bra, small choices we can opt in and out of. Choices we make via the universal remote housed in our pockets. Change catches up to us, one evening, when we’ve been asked to choose on your laptop whether a teenage boy who eats Sugar Puffs for breakfast and listens to Now That’s What I Call Music 2, buries his dad’s body in the garden or chops it up using a saw in the kitchen. When we realise that the science fiction we once wrote about is now a daily reality.
Whatever the point of Bandersnatch, it’s clear that the revolution will be streamed on Netflix.