In 2014, Unfriended had its world premiere at Fantasia. One of two films that year, along with Open Windows, that takes place on a computer screen – the film’s success has been a pivotal benchmark in a storytelling movement that reflects our increasingly plugged-in lives. Four years later, the sequel, Unfriended: Dark Web drops the supernatural element to tell a horror story rooted in the real world.
Opening on a login screen, a character desperately tries different password combinations in an attempt to gain access. In a comedic fury, even before we see the desktop home screen, we understand that not everything going on is above board. As we find out that this person behind the screen is Matias (Colin Woodell), an industrious young man creating an app to help better communicate with his deaf girlfriend, we forget that initial unease and settle into getting to better know the characters.
Soon, Matias joins some friends over Skype. They play Cards Against Humanity and we get a sense of their repartee. In the background though, Matias starts to get creepy messages as he realises the computer’s previous owner left a browser open with an open Facebook account. The messages ask for the computer to be returned and the tone becomes more frantic. With the story set in motion, Matias and his friend get dragged into the dark web and an progressively disturbing set of escalating circumstances. Much like the first film, the characters are trapped in a twisted net where not everyone will survive.
On the surface, Unfriended: Dark Web should work. Like a Twilight Zone episode gone wrong, characters are drawn down a twisted path after Matias makes a poor moral choice. Bringing into question issues of free will, the film insists on a level of predestination that robs characters of full autonomy as they struggle to untangle themselves from an increasingly perverted game.
However, as we get deeper into the film and more of the technological elements come to light, things become more implausible. While the writer/director, Stephen Susco says that nearly everything in the film is based on some real life event, the compounding layers of the dark web narrative are far less credible than the supernatural element included in the first film. Rather than err on the side of simplicity, the film’s narrative and even its formal elements go completely off the rails, making for a largely frustrating cinematic experience.
The use of fringe technology in particular demands a greater sense of disbelief than some audience members might be willing to make. While it’s certainly possible all the technology does exist (seems doubtful), it is so obscure and so strangely presented that most audiences will be forced to either accept or reject what is being presented to them. Phantom Facebook messages that appear with a distorted ding, only to disappear several seconds later, are particularly distracting and these formal elements disrupt the otherwise sleek screen images, suggesting that a less is more approach to audiovisual storytelling would have served the film better.
Desktop movies are so fundamentally “of the moment,” that it will be interesting how our relationship to them will change over time. As this format becomes commonplace in the next few years (the film’s producer Timur Bekmambetov says their company is working on fourteen upcoming releases using the form across many different genres), it will also become clearer if this is a step towards the future of cinema or merely a flash in the pan novelty.
In these early stages “screenlife” narratives feel radical, channeling legacies of cinematic collage in the cinema of filmmakers like Godard and Peter Tscherkassky for a mainstream audience. In this case, while the storytelling is integral to the audiovisual form (this could never be told outside of a computer), it also has some gaping and distracting flaws that hold the film back. Yet, while Unfriended: Dark Web might not be as good as the first film, it is still worth recommending as a potential step forward into a new realm of cinematic language.
Unfriended: Dark Web was seen and reviewed at Fantasia 2018.