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REVIEW – Unfriended

UnfriendedDirected by: Leo Gabriadze
Produced by: Timur Bekmambetov, Nelson Greaves
Written by: Nelson Greaves
Edited by: Parker Laramie, Andrew Wesman
Cinematography by: Adam Sidman
Starring: Shelley Hennig, Moses Jacob, Renee Olstead, Will Peltz, Jacob Wysocki, Courtney Halverson, Heather Sossaman
Year: 2015

 

Previews for this movie had me thinking this was going to probably be one of the worst movies of 2015. Screaming teenage characters, the gimmick of having the movie confined to a single MacBook screen for the entire film in an insane twist on the “found footage” genre, a guy forcing his hand into a blender by some unseen force that was apparently getting revenge for being “unfriended”… Just… every time I saw this movie being advertised, I couldn’t help but mentally wretch at the thought of seeing it. Audiences in the theatre even seemed to agree – there was always laughter accompanying the viewing. And then… a funny thing actually happened when it finally came out. Much like how I had hilariously low expectations for the schmaltzy, gimmicky-looking, Nicholas Sparks-esque The Fault in Our Stars, this sure-to-be-awful teen horror flick with the computer screen gimmick ended up getting some solid reviews from critics – not nearly as good as The Fault in Our Stars, mind you, but horror is an acquired taste genre, so you’ve gotta grade these things on a curve sometimes. However, just like with the other movie, I had to see what the fuss was about.

Unfriended - Laura Barns Kill Yourself

Firstly, let me point out that the movie does not center completely on Facebook. Thank God for that, because I did think this movie was going to be nothing but product placement. It was, in fact, only partly product placement! And… I was fine with it! Yeah, the movie plays host to some pretty gratuitous and obvious advertising – Facebook, YouTube, LiveLeak, Skype, Apple, Spotify, Google, Chatroulette… I’m fairly certain the list could go on, but those are the ones that stick out in my mind as being crucial to the movie. And I do mean crucial. This is a movie centered on modern online interactions, after all, and it needs that bit of authenticity to it. You know how a lot of movies will usually come up with a generic, fictional alternative that is obviously referencing a real life counterpart? It’s almost always distracting, and it can often derail a whole scene because you’re too busy focusing on the terribly named ersatz Twitter a character just logged into called… I dunno… “Twatter” or something.

You can often understand why some movies avoid product placement, of course, or why even some companies themselves wouldn’t want their products featured, should it potentially shed some negative light on the product. At the very least, though, these scenes are usually mercifully brief, but you have to wonder in some cases why the companies just didn’t create a bit of synergy and work together and do each other a financial solid. Unfriended, however, is a movie that actually kind of… needs… its product placement. Let me put it this way: modern technology is featured so prominently and is so integral to the characters’ actions that the slightest bit of inauthenticity would have basically derailed the entire movie with the distraction of a poorly named, unfamiliar product. This movie leans heavily upon us knowing what it’s like to operate a computer today and thus be familiar with how the various programs work – even if we don’t personally use them, we at least have an idea of what they are and how others do. So, yes, get over that. It actually helped, and I was wrong.

Unfriended - Blair and Mitch Chat

 

Secondly, this movie actually does have a story to tell, and, believe it or not, if you’re willing to give into the film’s storytelling devices, it’s actually pretty clever in how it plays out. It begins with some backstory, with lead character Blair viewing the video of a former friend and classmate, Laura Barns, shooting herself in a park and then watching the embarrassing video of Laura that was anonymously shared online which prompted an onslaught of bullies to tell Laura she should “kill herself.” This is interrupted when Blair receives a Skype call from her boyfriend, Mitch, and later their other friends from school – but there’s also a party crasher in their midst who’s also tagged along. And that someone is somehow using Laura Barnes’ account… Naturally, the obvious questions are raised: Are they being hacked? Did someone merely log into Laura’s accounts and pranking them? Or maybe it’s one of their own playing a prank on the others? Obviously, things take a turn for the apparently supernatural, as whoever it is begins to test their friendships by revealing intimate details that will ruin – or even end – their lives forever.

Unfriended - Facebook chat

The extent to which the filmmakers went into putting details in, like how Blair will nervously twitch her cursor across the screen and click futilely on buttons familiarly, is seriously impressive. The entirety of the movie takes place within the confines of Blair’s laptop screen, but it never feels limited by this. Rather, they’re liberated to explore new ways of conveying otherwise mundane things like emotion, hesitation, and deceit through actions like typing and mouse movements, even when characters’ Skype windows weren’t on screen to show their faces. The film exploits details like the notification of someone on the other side typing to build tension, or Blair altering her wording multiple times before settling on a message to send, her various drafts betraying her to the audience by exposing her self-doubt, motivation, and even hinting at the mental leaps she’s taking to hide something from even herself. It’s all so oddly fascinating to see play out in this way. It’s almost as if you’re in her mind. Also entertaining is how the antagonist ends up using the technology against them and even mocks them through it by playing an ironic or thematically appropriate song from a Spotify playlist while locking up the volume controls, posting and tagging embarrassing and publicly available photos that were meant to be kept secret between only some of the friends, or using the on screen notifications to create a countdown clock as it challenges them to complete a task, “or else.” This is basically social media torture porn, with both lives and especially reputations on the line, and I actually kind of… loved it.

Unfriended - Play a game

The film is also a pretty decent showcase for some effective and realistic performances from its cast. I know – I’m shocked, too, but there’s genuine panic and fear in their performances, and even the opening flirtatious scenes between Blair and Mitch feel awkwardly real. You get a sense of who these people are, how they relate to one another, and even where they stand within the social structure at school. That the ensuing events are all contained within tiny windows and it still doesn’t negate the impact of what plays out is really impressive, because you do get a sense of how horrific all this would be should you, also, find yourself victim to a potential spirit that’s holding you and your friends hostage via your beloved devices.

Shelley Hennig as Blair is the true highlight of the film, of course. Everyone else is pretty good, but Hennig is a standout. Her Blair is not a mean girl and not completely self-absorbed, but you do get a sense that she’s fairly high on the social totem pole beyond even her looks, as she has a naturally bubbly personality. She’s not a duplicitous backstabber by nature, and you get a sense that, generally, she is a good and decent person. However, she’s not played or written as being any less suspect than the rest of the cast of characters, either, and while Hennig is great at playing happy, bubbly Blair, she’s at her best when Blair is a sobbing mess, scared out of her wits, and still trying to reason with whatever it is that’s terrorizing her and her friends. Combined with the clever use of visual cues as to what she’s thinking and feeling, Blair actually becomes a bit more of a complex character beyond her scream queen qualifications. Not overly complex, of course, but interesting no less, and Hennig is a big part of why the character feels as authentic and empathetic as she is.

Unfriended - Virus scan

If there are any shots I can take at the film, the most predominate one is the one that’s likely going to make this movie more flash-in-the-pan than it really deserves to be: the fact that it’s based so heavily upon social media as we know it, it’s automatically been dated, and it’s unlikely that this film will go down in the annals of horror movie history, let alone film history, as a result. That a lot of these companies will update their interfaces, given the time, and that a lot of them may also shut down at some point in the future, or at least the services as we know them will, it’s completely up in the air as to whether or not audiences of the future will be as connected to the material as we are now. Secondly, it’s definitely still a gimmick movie, and I doubt it’ll have much replay value even a couple years from now once the novelty runs out. Perhaps, even then, my enthusiasm for it will have run out permanently?

Unfriended - Never Have I Ever

My viewing for this review was only my second after its theatrical release. While I doubt imitators will do as well, a sequel has already been commissioned, and it’s no doubt they’ll try to incorporate more of the contemporarily popular apps and trends into the franchise – Snapchat, Tinder, and Reddit, after all, didn’t find their way into the first go around, after all. Who’s to say that the next film even needs to take place on a MacBook, too? Why not go Windows next time around? Or, heck, go all out with a vertically-oriented cellphone footage movie! Or maybe riff on Let’s Play videos by having the movie center around a dead gamer getting vengeance through Xbox Live and killing people as they died within a round of Call of Duty or something? (That last one might actually work…) But who really believes that these concepts will have lasting power and resonate the way that, for example, Frankenstein’s technological cautionary tale has?

Unfriended - Suicide Video

Never mind, though, I guess. In a disposable society, a movie centered on disposable protagonists and their ever changing technology may as well itself have built-in obsolescence. In the meantime, however, we live in the present, and I still think that Unfriended is an unexpectedly solid and entertaining horror film with some clever twists on a tired subgenre and better acting and execution than you could ever ask for in a movie that initially comes off as superficial and a poorly thought out commentary on cyberbullying. Its scares and tension building are solid, its gimmicks amusing and well incorporated into the storytelling, and it’s just about the only film I could recommend where watching it on a laptop screen might actually enhance the dread. (I didn’t – I just didn’t feel like sitting in front of a laptop screen for so long without doing something than look at it for over an hour.) Unfriended may not be a timeless masterpiece, but it’s a damn solid contemporary thrill ride.

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 3.5 / 5

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  1. October 1, 2017 at 10:25 pm

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