Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Leo Gabriadze
Writer: Nelson Greaves
Producer: Timur Bekmambetov, Nelson Greaves
Stars: Shelley Hennig, Moses Jacob Storm, Renee Olstead, Will Peltz, Jacob Wysocki, Courtney Halverson, Heather Sossaman
A group of teenage friends are tormented online by someone seeking revenge for a shaming video that led to a suicide one year earlier.
When I was in high school, a classmate of mine once drank so heavily at a weekend party that she lost control of her bodily functions and did something with her pants still on that people normally do while sitting on a toilet. I wasn’t there, although I didn’t need to be to find out what happened. Teenagers being teenagers, the incident of course became the subject of more than a few giggling whispers come Monday morning when word went around about the unfortunate girl’s soiled slacks and newly minted red-faced reputation.
I won’t print the girl’s name here. I wish I could be magnanimous in saying that the reason I won’t is 100% out of respect to spare her any further embarrassment in permanent print. Except the total truth is, I couldn’t identify her if I wanted to because I can’t even remember her last name. That is how insignificant the nonevent ultimately was.
Two things are granted. First, I’ve no doubt the situation was not insignificant for the girl at the time, though from what I remember, she conducted herself with enough aplomb that no one not in the know would suspect anything was amiss. And second, I entered high school in 1989, when the Internet was barely beyond a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye. My generation didn’t have the simultaneous luxury/horror of 24/7 connected media availability, where cameras are inescapable, relentless, and at the ready to forever enshrine any act that human beings formerly had the comfort of forgetting, ignoring, or pretending never existed in the first place. Maybe I’m not of a mindset to fully weigh how the advent of social media amplifies the terror of being a vulnerable teenager.
Still, the point of the above is to kick off this review under the pretense that crapping one’s khakis fights for supremacy on any list of dumb reasons to kill yourself. Even dumber is a death over coloring one’s undershorts being the impetus to carry out a series of supernatural revenge killings for said suicide. Nevertheless, that is the overblown premise behind “Unfriended.”
One year ago, Laura Barns passed out at a party and pooped her pants. Someone captured the crapping on camera, posted it online for everyone to see, and the resulting humiliation drove Laura to gobble a bullet fired from her hand at point blank range (an event also recorded on camera and posted publicly). Now, on the anniversary of the tragic death, someone or something has intruded upon a Skype chat between Laura’s former friends while looking for answers to the who and the why behind Laura’s shaming video. And that someone or something seemingly has a power to compel others to take their own lives whenever a revelation leads dangerously closer to the awful truth behind Laura’s suicide.
“Unfriended” unfolds in 80-ish minutes of real time across a handful of video cameras displayed on a single computer screen as these teens text and talk while being tormented cyber-style. Filmed in extended takes inside a single house with each actor in a separate room, there’s no questioning the economical genius behind telling a simple story inexpensively, and in a manner requiring no complicated setups, camera movements, or even clear images or sound. Up for debate is the entertainment value of a mostly passive horror movie delivered through glitched video, garbled audio, and taxingly boring typeface.
In daily life, I occasionally sigh audibly about the useless waste of time whenever my computer displays a spinning beach ball or video-buffering pinwheel. In “Unfriended,” such annoyances are commonplace “features” of the storytelling. The characters on hand have amazing enough WiFi capabilities that online connections remain active even when a house’s electric power is cut, yet their camera feeds are so routinely corrupted by digital artifacts and dropped audio, you would swear everyone was connected via 56k dialup during the AOL era. That’s only when you can actually see the actors, though. Much of the runtime is otherwise occupied with letters lining up in IM windows as everyone types to one another.
More tiresome than watching characters communicate through constant texting in chat boxes is listening to them bicker in raised voices. “Unfriended” revolves around the timely theme of cyberbullying and its deadly consequences, except its motivations are muddied by a roster of unlikable adolescents where not one person is painted as anything other than a duplicitous backstabber much less a standout hero.
Laura Barns herself is identified as a bully. The audience sees only one instance of this via a video Laura once made in which she labels her classmates with a colorful variety of offensive terms, although the implied gist from her friends is that she “deserved” a dose of her own medicine. If “Unfriended” really meant to take a stand with social commentary, Laura would have been portrayed as an innocent victim worthy of sympathy, or even a clear-cut bitch of egomaniacal proportions who got what was coming to her. Instead defined as neither and both concurrently, there is no definitive direction pointing at how we should feel about Laura or her death.
“Unfriended” flirts with being mildly interesting when its middle act focuses on the friends turning against each other. Except while “Unfriended” doesn’t necessarily dumb down a serious issue, it doesn’t take its theme into hard-hitting territory either. The film ultimately melts into being a rote riff on the J-horror fusion of vengeful ghost with haunted technology while devolving into a snipefest spotlighting snot-nosed brats, every one of whom is revealed to be some variant of a conniving, secret-hiding jerk. When a game of “Never Have I Ever” outs such laughable transgressions as having crashed a friend’s mom’s car or stealing $80 from a buddy, you can’t help but circle back to the notion of how absurd it is that anyone should die over such negligible trivialities.
Following its Fantasia Film Festival premiere in 2014 under the title “Cybernatural,” the film received enough buzz that big studio heavyweight Universal Pictures scooped up distribution rights with an eye towards a wide-scale theatrical booking. At its United States debut at SXSW in March 2015, just one month before the scheduled April 17th release date, executive producer Jason Blum confessed during his introduction that content was still being tweaked even as he spoke, clarifying only half-jokingly that he didn’t mean just color and sound. He meant characters and plotting.
Indeed, sitting in a row of seats next to me reserved for Universal execs, I overheard an agent representing the talent joke to his guest, “which one of the endings do you think we’ll see tonight?” His companion cynically laughed so loud that he almost did a popcorn spit take all over the Alamo Drafthouse.
I question what Universal/Blum saw worth championing in “Unfriended” that they still hadn’t locked down the final story only four weeks before going wide. While that is far from a rare practice in Hollywood, it makes less sense for a movie acquired as a finished product and touted as an acquisition treasure worthy of festival circuit scuttlebutt. It also speaks volumes about a movie still in need of a sharp editing knife despite being so far removed from principal photography.
Tailor made for a teenage crowd, “Unfriended” ranks alongside “Ouija” (review here) in terms of being entirely forgettable, yet nonetheless in possession of mass appeal for an undemanding set whose ages begin with the number one. More discerning thriller fans hankering for a genuinely entertaining and creatively crafted single screen suspense story told in real time should check out Nacho Vigalondo’s “Open Windows” instead (review here).
Review Score: 40