If you could watch Netflix’s Cat Burglar as a coherent, sequential, uninterrupted piece of film, there wouldn’t be much that seemed particularly notable about it.
It would come across like a run-of-the-mill, animated caper – a cunning cat called Rowdy is attempting to rob a museum while avoiding being caught by the security guard, Peanut the slow-witted dog.
Made in a style that imitates the work of Tex Avery – the animator responsible for characters like Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny – the cartoon has a classic feel, featuring the flickery screen, over-the-top actions, exaggerated sound effects and orchestral music that are the hallmarks of the original Looney Tunes films. Mildly entertaining, but nothing you haven’t already seen hundreds of times as a child.
But that’s where Charlie Brooker comes in. This isn’t a coherent, sequential, uninterrupted piece of film. It moves backwards and forwards depending on how you – the viewer – interact with it. As Rowdy makes his way into the museum and towards his prize, the viewers need to answer three questions correctly while the clock ticks. Failure to get all three right, or to not complete them in the ten seconds provided, results in Rowdy dying (luckily for him, Cat Burglar subscribes to the nine-lives theory about cats). If the viewer succeeds, the plot moves forward.
At first the marriage of old-school cartoon and interactive quizzing seems slightly odd and clunky. But the questions, seemingly simple at first, can easily catch the viewer out with deliberately tricky phrasing – or just the pressure of the countdown. The drive to complete the film (or game – the “filame”?) quickly becomes addictive. Dying and having to rewatch – or retake – each scene isn’t as repetitive as it could be either, with different variations of each sequence being played each time. The questions often provoke a giggle too.
So yes, the mind behind Cat Burglar is Charlie Brooker, the creator of the dystopian anthology series Black Mirror. A special episode of that series – 2018’s Bandersnatch – was his first experiment in interactive television. Posing to the viewer a series of binary questions, it’s actually far more advanced than Cat Burglar – instead of a single win-or-lose storyline which the viewer has to unlock in parts by giving correct answers, there were no right or wrong choices to be made in Bandersnatch. Instead, the choices for the viewer – everything from accepting or rejecting a dream job to choosing Sugar Puffs or Corn Flakes for breakfast – take the story in radically different directions, with several possible endings.
In Bandersnatch, Brooker offered layer upon layer. The plot focussed on Stefan’s attempts to create his own video game – also called Bandersnatch – which, like the episode, would allow the player to choose their own storyline. And Stefan’s idea was based on a fictional book, also called Bandersnatch, which allowed the viewer to choose their own storyline. An elaborate, multi-storyline, multi-reality narrative created an experience to confuse both the viewers and the characters. In one plotline, Stefan begins to realise that his actions are being influenced by a mysterious force (you), and, depending on what choices you make, is contacted by you. In one ending, he puts his life on the line, another takes a murderous twist
So has Brooker tapped into a whole new way of how we’ll watch TV going forward? Well, Netflix has already made 18 interactive films, and has been at it since 2017 (most of them are designed for children). But it’s important to distinguish between Cat Burglar and Bandersnatch – while the latter is essentially an example of a branching narrative film – several separate, interlocking plotlines which can all be discovered by the viewer making different choices – it could be argued that the new effort is more of a game, testing the viewer in order to unlock the next section of the plot.
Part of what made Bandersnatch so compelling was how it played on the fact that the interactive format was a novelty for most viewers. If increasing numbers of films pursue this, it could quite quickly become boring. It would also, from script to screen, be incredibly time-consuming for everyone involved.
Two-hundred-and-fifty different video segments were needed to create Bandersnatch, with Brooker telling the Hollywood Reporter that it felt like they were making four episodes at once. And some viewers spent hours watching and rewatching it to discover all of the different available paths and endings available to them. Fun the first time, perhaps, but why should studios risk investing more time, money and resource into products for their customers to spend hours interacting with, only to find it unsatisfying and off-putting?
Well, one possible answer, sadly, is data. Several times in Bandersnatch the viewer is asked to choose between different products – between different breakfast cereals and different songs – and various decisions are taken (or not) which would provide valuable information about how impulsive the viewer is: to accept or refuse LSD when offered, or to opt to jump off a balcony. In 2019 Michael Veale, then a technology policy researcher at UCL, discovered that Netflix had kept track of all of the choices he had made in Bandersnatch long after he finished the film. They also told him that it was in order to improve branching narrative storylines in future films and series.
If streaming platforms begin to churn out more interactive content, it may be worth a closer look at how they’re using our data. How a company like Netflix records its viewers responses when taking part in an interactive film – and what it uses that information for – could be a crucial factor in their appetite for making more.
Until then, do give Cat Burglar a go – and make good choices.
Downfall: The case against Boeing (Netflix)
In October 2018, a Boeing 737 Max crashed just 13 minutes after taking off from Jakarta. Then less than six months later, in March 2019, the same thing happened to another Boeing 737, this time in Ethiopia. This documentary points the finger squarely at the manufacturer. Hearing from aviation experts and the families of those killed, the documentary provides an overview of how Boeing went from being a brand synonymous with safety to one obsessed with accelerating production to see off the competition – to the detriment of quality control. Watch it and become even more cynical – and angry – about corners being cut to satisfy greed.
Jobfished (BBC iPlayer)
Imagine it: you’re in lockdown, unemployed, anxious about making ends meet. Then, you come across a design agency with a slick, professional looking website, great clients – Samsung, Facebook, National Geographic – and a charismatic influencer as the CEO. Well, that’s the situation several people found themselves in when they were first “hired” by Madbird in 2020. Except the company wasn’t real, the clients weren’t really their clients and the CEO, Ali Ayad made the whole thing up. Those affected range from random people based abroad who’ve had their headshots used to illustrate fake director profiles on the website, to people who almost risked going to jail for deals they believed they were striking from the “Dubai office” (you won’t be shocked to hear that there was no Dubai office). A shocking story of a con that could only happen in the digital age – and one that perhaps acts as a cautionary tale when it comes to undertaking due diligence on offers which seem too good to be true.
Archive 81 (Netflix)
“Dan (Mamoudou Athie) spends his days collecting and restoring historic and damaged film and videotapes. One day he’s commissioned to restore a collection of tapes that were almost destroyed when a New York apartment block burned to the ground decades previously – footage captured by a young film student called Melody (Dina Shihabi). The show hops back and forth between Melody as she attempts to understand what’s going on in her apartment block, and Dan as he retraces her steps. Then things get very creepy – very quickly.
Archive 81 thankfully avoids the usual Netflix trap of serving up bloated episodes in overly long seasons. The pace is measured, but never slow, and the characters, situations and the actors bringing them to life are always spellbinding, with Athie and Shihabi giving standout performances.
There are echoes of other horror classics like Blair Witch Project, Rosemary’s Baby and The X Files, and the genuinely terrifying sound design will make anyone over the age of 40 recall the eerie soundtrack of Children of the Stones – a relic from the days when British children’s TV could give you nightmares.
The prevailing sense of unease is peppered with occasional shocks and jump scares. The end of episode four made me cry. Watch Archive 81, but do not watch it alone. And never visit the sixth floor.”
Mark St Andrew, Head of ThinkIns
Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid: How the Natural World is Adapting to Climate Change – Thor Hanson (Icon)
While humanity’s response to climate change has been rather sluggish and lacking in urgency, the natural world hasn’t had that luxury. In this book on the relatively new field of climate change biology, Thor Hanson examines the ways animals and plants are evolving in order to survive the effects of a warming climate. Butterflies which have developed stronger wing muscles, populations of owl whose plumage colour is changing, and the lizards – referenced in the book’s title – with larger toe pads to cling to surfaces as they’re battered by increasingly common hurricanes all feature. Although it’s depressing to read about the speed and scale at which our actions are affecting the natural world, it’s hard not to marvel at the biological ingenuity on display in this book – hopefully it provides a little motivation for us to save these species.
The Dictator’s Wife – Freya Berry (Headline)
Freya Berry’s debut novel is set in Yanussia – a fictional post-communist country in Eastern Europe. After getting rid of their authoritarian ruler, Constantin Popa, in 1989, his wife, Marija Popa, goes on trial in 1993, with several of the charges relating to crimes committed by her husband. The narrator, Laura, fled Yanussia and its regime as a child – but returns to serve on Marija’s defence team. Much of the novel’s weight is also put on the way powerful women are perceived. When she was in power, Marija was the country’s “Little Mother”; stripped of her prestige and standing trial, she is then “the Black Widow”, as she “had eaten her husband from the inside out” – the blame for his actions now placed on her. It’s a slow-burner, but still tense, dramatic and thought-provoking. A great debut from a promising new author.
‘Figure Skating’ – Porij
“I’ve been listening a lot this week to Porij (doing my Green Man Festival homework), a gang of new-gen ravers who met at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and have done a couple of excellent EPs during the various lockdowns. Their new single starts with some clattering drum-‘n’-bass beats, a lovely fluid bassline and breathy double-tracked vocals from singer Eggy.
Dig out a lovely track called ‘Nobody Scared’, and if you know your rave history there’s a treat lurking on their first release – ‘Your Love’ is a cover of a B-side from The Prodigy’s first single in 1991, the one that invented that off-kilter deranged fairground sound.”
David Taylor, Editor
‘Like Exploding Stones’ – Kurt Vile
After the adrenaline of last year’s ‘Run, Run, Run’ the former War on Drugs guitarist provides a little relief with his latest offering. Laying the ground for his ninth studio album, Watch My Moves, due later this year (alongside a string of UK tour dates this summer), Kurt’s lyrics on this – “I was cool, calm and collected” – match exactly how he comes across on it. Slow, melodic and slightly deadbeat crooning, this is vintage Vile. Sit back and drink it in.
Thanks for reading, and take care of yourselves.
Photographs courtesy Netflix, Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images, BBC