Director: Stephen Susco
Writer: Stephen Susco
Producer: Timur Bekmambetov, Jason Blum
Stars: Colin Woodell, Betty Gabriel, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Andrew Lees, Connor Del Rio, Stephanie Nogueras, Savira Windyani, Douglas Tait
A stolen laptop leads seven friends into a murderous conspiracy during their regular webcam game night.
The first “Unfriended” (review here) didn’t connect with me, as its story was too silly and its computer screen conceit too irritating to tickle my palate. Plenty of people felt differently. Reviews moderately leaned toward overall favorability while box offices brought in enough money that to not deliver another one would be to foolishly leave cash uncollected. Which is how we arrive at “Unfriended: Dark Web” whether an individual wants it or not.
Formerly subtitled “Game Night,” but changed to distance itself from Universal’s 2018 comedy with the same name, “Dark Web” uses the “Unfriended” title and template, yet has no direct connection to its predecessor. Whereas the first film took its terror tale down a supernatural route, this second spin grounds itself in the tangible world, although that doesn’t make it any more realistic. In fact, “Unfriended’s” digital ghosts probably have an edge over “Dark Web’s” homicidal hackers in the believability department.
Creating custom software as a communication shortcut has laid uncomfortable rocks beneath Matias’ relationship with his hearing-impaired girlfriend Amaya, who wishes Matias would apply his initiative to learning sign language properly. Matias momentarily distracts himself from the matter by concurrently participating in a webcam Cards Against Humanity* game with five friends in various locations. As if juggling six simultaneous feeds wasn’t challenging enough, game night takes an unexpected turn when an uninvited guest intrudes on the session.
(*Writer/director Stephen Susco revealed that he originally intended for the actors to play Settlers of Catan. It’s difficult to envision how that would have worked, justifying the smart switch to CAH instead, affording actors better opportunities at more enjoyably organic interactions anyway.)
What Matias hasn’t told anyone yet, but he will be forced to reveal soon, is that his new laptop came from the lost and found of a local café. Its rightful owner wants it returned. Matias plans to do exactly that after hints roll in that this mystery man might be more dangerous than an average online gamer.
Except curiosity won’t let Matias leave well enough alone. When a cryptic communication entices Matias to impersonate the laptop’s owner, he topples a domino leading himself, Amaya, and their five friends down a fiber optic funnel into a conspiracy involving kidnapping, torture, ten million dollars, and a clandestine cabal of cyber-skilled serial killers.
“Dark Web” is slightly more satisfying as an escapist thriller than the first “Unfriended,” hence the nudge in review score compared to the negative rating I awarded that movie. Regardless of marginal entertainment value improvements, “Dark Web” still suffers greatly from the obnoxiousness of its flat narrative device, which requires prominent displays of the absolute worst aspects of a laptop lifestyle.
Call me a “get off my lawn” Gen X-er who isn’t in tune with the technological times if that is the case. But when I think of boredom involving computers, I think of spinning beach balls, waiting for reboots, running antivirus utilities, and watching ellipses bounce, all of which regularly pause onscreen action in “Unfriended: Dark Web.” I hate seeing all of this on my own computer at home. How much of it do I need to endure during a movie at the expense of my attention span’s immersion?
This complaint doesn’t even cover the countless times an arrow cursor pocks a person’s face while s/he speaks. Effects designed to promote the real-time multi-cam illusion, such as annoying digital glitches whenever the mystery man first appears, regularly devolve into distracting nuisances instead.
When multiple windows appear onscreen at once, the movie says that nothing deserves focus because everything blurs into a mess of text, typing, and animation. When multiple windows are minimized in the background, the movie effectively informs us how irrelevant five of the featured streams are. We already can’t get to know anyone well when they are trapped inside a two-dimensional box. Routinely shrinking and muting them highlights how much they amount to inconsequential noise.
What’s additionally unfortunate here is that several performances are fully charged with effective intensity. “Dark Web” consists of nearly nonstop dialogue, and the cast does an admirably engaging job of chewing through thick material with earnest emotion. “Dark Web” shot in only eight days following five days of rehearsal, reportedly blazing through 47.5 pages of script on Day One alone. Devoted energy from the cast regularly shows in their collective commitment.
The issue is that their efforts leak out the sides of characters who aren’t entirely useful aside from servicing momentary plot movements. Lexx’s only purpose is providing fodder. If not for limited comic relief, AJ would line up next on the “what good are they?” list. “Dark Web” throws a lot of smoke when action gets frantic, but logic gaps and empty functions are easy to see once calm clears those clouds.
The movie’s mood definitely improves once the story goes deep with its darkness. Trouble is, the setups push plausibility farther than the film can handle.
Stephen Susco understandably wishes to impress that bored kids in basements, not government spooks in undisclosed offices, are what we have to fear most when it comes to online safety. But even though their actions are frightening, the hoodie-wearing conspirators causing carnage aren’t. The revelation of otherwise ordinary people creating cyber chaos comes with “that’s it?” disappointment that is nowhere near as scary as when their identities were unknown.
What’s more, we’re asked to believe tens of thousands of likeminded young psychos organized an international crime ring of impossible proportions. Dial it back a little “Dark Web.” There’s a line between terrifying implications (“The Invitation’s” ending, for example) and outright outrageousness, and Susco’s script crosses it.
I left a lot of ranting behind me, though I admit the movie has decent moments. “Unfriended: Dark Web” can be legitimately suspenseful when you work past how complicatedly ludicrous it becomes. Pull that thread and there is unsettlingly disturbing fun to be found.
The frame simply doesn’t fit firmly with the fiction. Personal opinion aside, it’s safe to say that while they are different in certain respects, “Dark Web” is similar enough in spirit to “Unfriended” that if the first film appealed to you, this one probably will too. But if “Unfriended’s” unpleasant personalities and computer-related claptrap were more bothersome than boffo, post up for a similarly underwhelmed reaction here.
Review Score: 50