Unfriended (2015)

04/18/2015  By  Martin R. Schneider     Comments Off

When you see a trailer for a film like Unfriended, it’s easy to laugh at it because of its ridiculous, gimmicky central conceit. But “gimmicky” does not necessarily a bad film make. Birdman and Boyhood are both “gimmick” films, as are Rashomon and Pulp Fiction. (With the same gimmick, no less.) The horror genre in particular loves gimmicks, because they will do anything they can to make you afraid or uncomfortable with parts of life you encounter frequently. That’s why a horror film revolving around social media, taking place entirely upon a laptop screen is not really such a bad idea in theory. In execution, however, it turns out to be kind of a boring slog.

Unfriended takes place entirely on the laptop screen, and therefore in the POV, of Blaire Lily, one of six teenagers video chatting with each other about prom arrangements on what happens to be the one-year anniversary of the suicide of their friend Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman). The group begins getting messages online via e-mail, Skype, and Facebook from a mysterious source claiming to be Laura, who forces them all to reveal their greatest secrets to each other. Then, one by one, the cyber-ghost causes each of them to kill themselves.

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AHHH! TEENAGERS!

This attachment to computer screens and media is both the films greatest strength and its weakness. On the one hand, it is excellent at capturing the way people interact with the internet and with each other on the internet. We are given hints of Laura and Blaire’s backstory by watching Blaire type, re-consider, delete, and re-type instant messages to her boyfriend. People talk to each other in individual chat rooms outside of the main thread, where they consult Google and their e-mail records regarding what is happening. Girls get into fights via webcam over things they see posted on Facebook. All of this is very real and perfectly encapsulates how people, especially teens, use their computers and use media. The problem is… that’s not at all interesting. I don’t want to see 90 minutes of teens using the internet, whether there is paranormal death involved or not. It’s really nice that Unfriended understands how teenagers talk to each other more than most movies, but real-life teenagers are agonizing to listen to.

Similarly, while it’s slightly interesting to have action occurring in six different windows as well as in the screen itself, the movie’s static nature prevents that from going anywhere. The film goes out of its way to put constraints on itself, preventing people from getting up or moving their computers. That means the scares are mostly relegated to “lights being turned off” and “webcams getting blurry.” Imagine the “I’m so scared” scene from Blair Witch Project, but translated to watching a teenager type “im so freaked out. y r u doing this?” over and over. It loses quite a bit of the punch. Unfriended was originally supposed to live as an MTV TV Movie, and honestly it would have been better off that way. As an easily ignorable trash-TV event which one can live-tweet along with it would work fine, but as a motion picture it’s essentially useless.

More than anything, Unfriended’s “R” rating is going to be its undoing, because this is a film made solely to appeal to the under-17 demographic. One of the most notable things about Unfriended is how much it borrows from its roots. Besides the aforementioned Blair Witch Project (and don’t think I didn’t notice you naming the main character “Blaire”, movie), there’s also some Paranormal Activity and the worst segment in V/H/S, along with some “sex=death” morality of ‘80s slasher films tossed in for good measure. I’m not saying this derivation is necessarily bad, but clearly this film wants to target audiences who haven’t seen these better films yet.

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AHHH PIXELATION!

This “cyberbullying is bad” theme also falls flat and seems trite for anyone outside of the teenage audience directly affected by it. I’m not saying cyberbullying isn’t a real issue or that there’s not material to make a film from it in any genre, I’m saying that cyberbullying as it is presented here is not really a credible threat to me unless I too am 16 years old. Perhaps if Laura had killed herself after a hate group sent police to her door because she wrote about video games on the internet, I might be singing a different tune. But this is a movie that announces one character’s death in meme format. I can’t take that seriously, and I’m not 100% sure I’m supposed to. As is, all this does is make me happy once again that I was a grown adult before Web 2.0 became a thing.

The fact is, while I admire the concept and attempt, there’s simply no way to make a Facebook screen frightening, unless you’re afraid of poorly-written racist screeds against the president inside of comments on jpeg-artifacted memes shared by classic rock FM radio stations. The basic digital real-time storytelling format of Unfriended isn’t without merit, it just doesn’t work at all for a feature-length horror film. (It’s much more suited to, say, a 22-minute sitcom episode.) After watching Unfriended completely fall apart within the first forty minutes and treading water for the rest of its runtime, I have to wonder why no one else realized that while they were making it.

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Martin Schneider has opinions about a lot of things, and sometimes he writes them down. But he tries not to be a douchebag about it, though.