Teen revenge horror gets a social-media makeover in 'Unfriended'
Unfriended Universal Pictures
Director: Levan Gabriadze
Screenplay: Nelson Greaves
Starring: Shelley Hennig, Moses Storm, Will Peltz, Renee Olstead, Jacob Wysocki, Matthew Bohrer, Courtney Halverson and Heather Sossaman
Rated R / 1 hour, 23 minutes
April 17, 2015
(out of four)
When communication changes in some dramatic way, I'm always curious to see how (and when) movies find ways to explore those changes. Integrating social media, smartphones, tablets, video chatting, Google Glass - or, a couple decades previous, the Internet and cell phones - is easy enough, but utilizing them as an integral part of your narrative platform is another thing entirely.
Not surprisingly, it usually takes years before anyone gets around to doing it. Strangely enough, I think the definitive American film about, or set within, Internet culture is still yet to be made. (I haven't seen either Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell or David Cronenberg's eXistenZ, but those may be relevant international examples.) Neveldine/Taylor made a valiant attempt in 2009 with Gamer, which used the Internet as a virtual playground, and which failed largely because of its action-movie weaknesses. The Matrix would probably be the go-to example, but even it wasn't really an exploration of the Internet itself; it just (marvelously) transplanted old-fashioned sci-fi conventions to the digital age. Something like TRON is a similarly abstract example. (Now, I might add, would be as good a time as any for a Snow Crash adaptation.)
Which brings us to Unfriended, a movie whose entire means of communication, and its entire visual milieu, is social media. Here is a real-time thriller that's basically nothing more than a series of interlocking conversations on various online platforms - instant messaging, Skype, Facebook, YouTube. Windows open, windows close, messages pop up, conversations recede into the background behind other conversations; the film expands and shrinks in scope from moment to moment depending on which of the characters (and how many) are involved in any of the numerous overlapping conversations. But we never leave the computer screen; it is the filmmakers' sole turf. In terms of mainstream culture, I believe this is the first movie of its kind, and I must admit it's a surprisingly good one. But it also brings to mind comparisons to another recent movie, last year's indie Open Windows, whose director Nacho Vigalondo took on a similar visual challenge and absolutely went to town with it. Unfriended helmer Levan Gabriadze doesn't offer the same kind of endless resourcefulness, but he does make efficient and dynamic use of his on-screen elements, a difficult task considering none of them are any more inherently visually appealing than the computer screen you're looking at right now.
The computer screen through which we experience everything belongs to Blaire (Shelley Hennig), who in the film's opening scenes clicks through to a few sites that set the stage - first with grainy, cell phone camera footage of a teenage girl, Laura Barns (Heather Sossamon), committing suicide. Then we get the explanation for that, another video of Laura, in which she's blackout drunk and soils her pants while disembodied voices snicker off-screen. That video apparently went viral, Laura became a laughingstock both online and at school, and the ensuing harassment led her to take her own life.
The characters we see from then on were all classmates (and in some cases close friends) of Laura's, and our introductions begin in casual enough fashion. In what is apparently a pretty typical weeknight, Blaire and her friends - including boyfriend Mitch (Moses Storm), Jess (Renee Olstead), Val (Courteny Halverson), Adam (Will Peltz) and Ken (Jacob Wysocki) - get together for a group Skype session. Everything seems to be pretty uneventful - typical high-school chatter, petty annoyances and all - until they start getting messages from someone claiming to be Laura Barns. This person has not only found a way to hijack their group Skype, but is sending them all private messages as well, each one eerier and more threatening than the last.
Oh, and then one of them suddenly winds up dead. This "Laura Barns," or whoever she is, proves she means business. And that business, it turns out, is revenge. No matter how hard anyone protests that they had nothing to do with that infamous video.
The format is really what makes Unfriended work to the degree that it does. Once the script shifts into a particular pattern, moving things from suspense into distinct horror territory, it loses some of its interest simply because the drama - both what the characters reveal on camera and what we discover happened off of it - is pretty run-of-the-mill stuff. It's here that the movie starts to blend in with the countless teen-horror flicks that have preceded it.
But what's impressive is the way Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves resist explanation - like whether this really is Laura Barnes or not (and if so, how), and how "she" is doing what she's doing in the first place. The fact that a film that nakedly exposes our lack of online privacy goes out of its way to keep private what is ostensibly the most pertinent information (especially for those audiences who require everything to be explained) is both a nice ironic gesture and a smart way for the film to remain narratively uncluttered.
Unfriended makes no secret of the fact that it wants to carve its own niche, and it certainly wouldn't be surprising if, a decade or so from now, this occupies a similar place as The Blair Witch Project, which set the stage for a whole generation of found-footage movies. Whether we need too many more movies like this is another story. This and Open Windows are two early adopters of a distinctly modern aesthetic, but even while they thrive, they reveal the format's limitations. It will take increasingly imaginative filmmaking to keep future attempts from seeming like redundant imitations.