SXSW Review: ‘Unfriended’
Unfriended wants to do for social media what The Ring did for VHS tapes — take a piece of everyday technology and turn it into an object of uncommon terror. A bunch of teenagers on Skype have their group call interrupted by an intruder who claims to be a dead classmate who killed herself after she was cyberbullied. The entire movie takes place on a computer screen as one of the girls in the group, Blaire (Shelley Hennig), browses the Internet, checks her Facebook, and chats with her friends about the anonymous assailant who abuses and threatens them and then starts picking them off one-by-one. What follows becomes an original gloss on a very unoriginal subgenre. Its very clever and creepy merging of movie and technology is nearly ruined by stale horror clichés.
The reason to see it — and the reason some probably won’t — is the fact that it all proceeds in real time on this laptop screen. We never see any of the characters, including Blaire, except when they’re visible in a Skype window and there are long stretches without any spoken dialogue because she’s busy typing in iMessage. The film’s vision of the Internet is generally very convincing; all of the programs, apps, and websites (Google Chrome, Skype, etc.) are real, and director Levan Gabriadze litters the screen with small but smart details, paying attention to everything from the other tabs in Blaire’s web browser (Forever 21, Jezebel) to the way typos get shifted in autocorrect. Because we’re voyeuristically intruding on Blaire’s private screen we have access to her thoughts as they’re formed; she might type “He didn’t do it, I promise,” then hesitate and cut the “I promise” part — or delete the whole thing and send an entirely different text message. Naysayers will dismiss the conceit as a gimmick, but it’s a novel and persuasive one.
Cyberbullying is a deeply troubling phenomenon, one that should be subject enough for a really unsettling (albeit less commercial) movie. But in a bid for mainstream horror audiences, Unfriended introduces a supernatural slasher element. The person claiming to be the teens’ dead friend exhibits incredible hacking abilities; they can mute or unmute microphones, upload videos to their YouTube accounts, and control their hard drives. The deeper Unfriended goes down this rabbit hole, the worse it gets, as the chilly atmosphere gives way to silly histrionics and gore effects. The initial moments are scary specifically because they seem genuine; later moments are not scary specifically because they do not.
An argument could be made that the film’s turn toward the supernatural works as a metaphor; there really is an afterlife on the Internet, where embarrassing incidents never die. (Just ask Justine Sacco or the “Boom goes the dynamite!” guy.) And the implicit message that these amazing communication tools that should bring people together instead pull them apart is a valid one. But Unfriended’s more commercial elements work better in theory than practice, and none are anywhere near as disturbing as the routine cruelty of the actual internet. In cyberspace, everyone can hear you scream, but that doesn’t mean they will do anything to help you.