Thursday, October 29, 2015

Mysteries of the internet

If we take the position that found footage is an oversaturated genre -- and I do take that position -- then it should stand to reason that subsections of this genre are feeling the overall strain even more acutely. While you could argue that variations on standard found footage are a way of breathing new life into it, what seems to be the case is that the variations box themselves even more into the corners that tend to suffocate the already flimsy credibility of this genre.

Found footage movies set on computer screens should be a prime example of that apparent struggle between breathing new life and fatally losing credibility. If the last one I saw -- Nacho Vigalondo's Open Windows -- was any indication, having a movie occur in real-time with web cams and instant chats only makes it seem all the more absurd. If you recall what I wrote about Open Windows back in March, the ridiculous decision to have all the internet-connected characters be constantly on the move -- while always maintaining a network connection and somehow always knowing what each other is up to -- took the film beyond laughable to just plain awful.

Unfriended certainly could have -- should have -- fallen into the same traps. It is, on the surface, the same type of movie. You'd wonder, then, why I picked it to watch while I was carving my jack-o-lantern on Wednesday night. Well, I did hear good things, and besides, better to watch a movie while carving that you don't need to give your full attention.

Unfriended did not turn out to be such a movie.

The fact that none of the characters leave their bedrooms is a good start on making it better than Open Windows. Every other creative decision works to remove the credibility stumbling blocks that typically trip up movies like this ... and also makes it all the more creepy.

I'll give you the plot in broad strokes before getting into the topic I teased in my subject line. It's the year anniversary since a teen who was cyber-bullied took her own life. She wasn't the "it gets better after high school" type, one who was chronically picked on. Rather, this was a popular girl, even a mean girl, who couldn't handle it when a video anonymously materialized on the web, showing her drunk, nearly passed out, and not having reached a toilet in time. The video of her shooting herself on school grounds is also seen. It's all seen from the computer screen of Blaire, who was her friend but also possibly her frenemy -- this movie contends, and it seems as though it may actually be the case, that many popular kids these days are stuck in that limbo between friend and enemy that is so accurately distilled by that portmanteau that joins the two words. Blaire first does a little Skype flirting with her boyfriend before ultimately being joined on a group Skype chat by four other friends -- and one mysterious, generic user they can't identify, who looks like this:

Chillingly minimalist in the context of what's about to happen, right? And what's about to happen is that all the friends are about to start getting tormented by this mystery entity. They can't hang up on this entity, they can't remove "him," and in an interesting commentary on internet trolls, they continue referring to this troublemaker as "him" even as the evidence begins mounting that it is somehow, impossibly, the spirit of their dead friend invading their computers. They start getting messages on Facebook from the dead girl (Laura Barns), and she begins posting damning videos and pictures of the friends, many of which involve them stabbing each other in the back, that they can't delete -- they literally don't have the functionality to remove them, as in delete buttons have been excised and X's no longer appear in the upper right-hand corners of screens. And I bet you can guess what starts happening, one by one, to the friends.

So that last paragraph starts to get into what I'm talking about when I refer to "the mysteries of the internet." What I found so chilling about Unfriended was not necessarily the slasher stuff, which is pretty ordinary, in the end, and is all stuff we've seen before. Rather, it's the inability to know what's going on with someone you can't fully see who is doing something, somewhere, on the web.

Let me try to describe that a little better. You know how when you are chatting with someone on Facebook, and it says "Bill Smith is typing ..." And then: Nothing. Bill Smith was writing something, but for some reason, Bill Smith never hit send. Or Bill Smith was writing something for a very long time, and ultimately, all he said was "Yeah." What was Bill Smith originally typing, before he thought better of it? Why did Bill Smith inexplicably stop responding?

Unfriended captures these things perfectly. Most likely, Bill Smith got a phone call, or was distracted by something else he was reading on the web, or even had someone come up to him and start talking to him. There was nothing nefarious or mysterious about why Bill Smith started typing you a response and never sent it. But when you are dealing with an angry ghost, and it starts typing but doesn't send anything ... that's scary.

Then there's just the stark failure of technology to operate as designed. Why does this email that was sent by Laura have no option to forward? Why is the option to unfriend her on Facebook grayed out? A character in Unfriended says she has weird computer stuff happen to her all the time, and we all have that. But when you refresh the page or reopen the browser, it usually fixes whatever glitch was happening. These are unfixable glitches, and when the movie makes its regularly exquisite use of silence -- a choice that would seem to belie the loud and busy online environment of the modern teen -- it just makes these moments of basic functionality breakdown all the more disquieting.

In the end, Unfriended was actually about the worst movie I could have chosen to watch while carving a pumpkin, because so much of its information is conveyed visually. There's so much reading of emails and chats and instant messages that it was almost like choosing to carve a pumpkin while watching a film with subtitles. Then of course you also need to watch for flickers of disturbing imagery in the background of various web cams, or windows popping up in the background that are not completely visible, but contribute to our understanding of these characters and what's happening to them.

So I was less than halfway done with my jack-o-lantern at the end of Unfriended's 83 minutes, with almost all the detail work still to go. But other than my slow progress requiring me to stay up until well after midnight, I'll make that trade any day. A good movie is always worth the "inconvenience" of having to actually watch it.

In order to finish my work, I just threw on an episode of Survivor, and barely needed to look at the screen at all.

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