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Review: 'Unfriended' will sate horror audiences and grad students

Some bleak ideas about how technology turns users into sociopaths get couched in a dumb ghost movie set entirely on a desktop.

‘Unfriended’
Director:
Levan Gabriadze
Stars: Shelley Hennig, Moses Jacob Storm
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

“Unfriended” is so-so as a ghost movie, pretty good as desktop cinema but fearless as a critique of digital technology and its effects, especially on a generation who’ve never lived without it. It hates millenials so much it could have been made by Ben Stiller’s documentarian in “While We’re Young.” Its characters are high schoolers who hang out but only while staring at screens in isolation. The entire film takes place on the desktop belonging to Blaire (Shelley Hennig), introduced as she and her boo (Moses Jacob Storm) go through a PG-13 version of the cyber-fooling around you see in Joe Swanberg movies. They’re interrupted by four of their friends, and they all proceed to have a great time, especially considering it’s the anniversary of the day their friend Laura killed herself because of cyber-bullying. (They also rarely make typos, though you've got to love that Blaire prefers VLC to Quicktime.)

As it happens, they’re all terrible people who each have at least a few, or several, skeletons in the closet. Also as it happens, their group chat has a mystery stranger: someone named “billie227” whose screen is blank and who communicates through typed messages. He or she also claims to be Laura from beyond. In addition to knowing, and looking to broadcast, all their secrets, this stranger can also fiddle with their Facebook, Spotify and YouTube services, blasting music (while showing the name of the artist and song title so viewers watching can stream them later) or even disabling certain parts of their programs. At points they suddenly can’t hit the “unfriend” button on FB or “reply all” on an e-mail and other mundane activities we take for granted.

It can also kill them, but the real violation is the control over their gizmos. The sudden unavailability of certain functions may be silly as scares, but they hit at the anxiety of not being able to control the machine that dominates modern life. Speaking of which, it even plays with the interminable spinning rainbow wheel that plagues Apple consumers, because this is a film as much about spooks as it is about jokes. It has a sense of humor and director Levan Gabriadze wants to milk as much as he can from online life for scares and jokes.

It’s rare for a mainstream film to be this visual-heavy; despite technically having only one shot it has more going on, image-wise, than 10 movies. ButGabriadze isn’t as capable a director as Nacho Vigalando was with “Open Windows,” another recent desktop-centered genre entry. That film, a manic and shape-shifting thriller (with real actors, including Elijah Wood and Sasha Grey), used the computer medium for suspense sequences. Gabriadze mostly falls back on malfunctioning windows and digital screw-ups to elicit cheap boos, rarely taking the time to wring suspense out of the computer screen.

Also like “Open Windows,” it goes deeper than thrills. Where that film played with the lack of trust that comes with digital and easily-manipulated images, “Unfriended” puts the onus on users themselves. The young characters here revel in how modern tech both encourages their worst, most base behavior IRL and allows them to cover up transgressions via their carefully sculpted online personas. They’re sociopaths, but they’re also entirely recognizable as everyperson teenagers. “Unfriended” is still a stupid ghost movie, and its actors eventually go from goofballs to, when stuff really this the fan, drama school over-emoters, screaming simultaneously for a seriously mute-worthy din. But it’s also unusually relentless, ditching the token convoluted mission that may tame or eradicate the evil ghost.

It’s also a stupid ghost movie that exists to traffic in ideas, not just about tech but about horror movies too. Most films that treat teens like meat to be hacked and slaughtered tend to be either puritanical — executing horndogs for the crime of having sex — or simply heartless. In “Unfriended” the victims don’t deserve death per se, but they’re far from pure. Even the “final girl” trope — the good virgin who will survive amidst the corpses of her sinful friends — gets turned on its head. Movies that sate both chatting Saturday night movie audiences and grad students looking for a robust paper is rare, so cherish it.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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