Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Review: Unfriended: Dark Web (2018)

Unfriended: Dark Web (2018)

Rated for some disturbing violence, language and sexual references

Score: 2 out of 5

Unfriended: Dark Web began life as a sequel to Unfriended, but watching it, I would've guessed that it was a standalone script that had the name attached to it for marketability. You remember Unfriended, right? The found-footage "social media horror" movie that looked on the surface like it was gonna be the worst sort of teen-pandering garbage, but which actually turned out to be a fairly incisive satire that still hits way too close to home, and holds up surprisingly well on rewatches? I still feel like I have to go out of my way to defend that one every time it comes up, because the title and premise alone cause a lot of people to dismiss it sight unseen. Well, in any event, it made money, meaning that somebody at Blumhouse decided that people wanted a sequel. Thing is, Unfriended wrapped up fairly conclusively, so how do you go forward? This sequel answers that question with "drop everything except the basic conceit, and go from there." Save for the fact that this is a horror movie where everything takes place on a computer screen, Unfriended: Dark Web has virtually nothing in common with its predecessor. Now, I could've forgiven that easily, as a thematic sequel offers plenty of ideas for new plots. What I can't forgive so easily, however, is how this film also ignores everything that worked about the first film. Without coherent plotting, interesting characters (protagonists and villain alike), or a commitment to accurately depicting the technology at the center of its story, this movie has little going for it beyond cheap scares and an admittedly pointed final twist.

The new protagonists are a group of twentysomethings in Los Angeles -- the protagonist Matias, his best friend Damon, the conspiracy vlogger AJ, the deejay Lexx, and the lesbian couple Serena and Nari -- who are getting together on Skype for their regular game night. Matias has a fancy new computer that he didn't acquire legally, but to be fair, it was sitting in the lost-and-found at the cafe where he works for several weeks, so nobody's gonna miss it, right? He especially wants to use it to run a speech-to-sign-language software he's been developing to better communicate with his deaf girlfriend Amaya, who isn't part of the larger friend group. Unfortunately, it turns out that the person who originally lost that computer, a man known only as "Charon IV", was up to some shady stuff on the dark web, the part of the internet that doesn't connect to search engines. On the dark web, one could acquire drugs, weapons, child porn, assassination services... and in this case, snuff films, with Matias finding a treasure trove of such on the computer's hard drive. What's more, the computer's original owner knows that Matias has it, and is now trying to kill him and all his friends who know about it.

After that, the film's greatest weakness becomes apparent as the plot turns into a series of mostly random events, trying and failing to juggle a number of different threads -- Charon IV and his partners in crime trying to get Matias to give up the computer, Matias trying to patch up his relationship troubles with Amaya while also making sure she doesn't come under attack, Matias trying to convince his friends that the videos he showed them are all just a game, Serena dealing with her mother's terminal cancer, etc. The thing is, most of these characters and story beats are given little room to breathe, the film instead spending far too long just twiddling its thumbs on filler that doesn't reveal anything about the characters. The character development we get in the first act isn't built upon later, such that it winds up being the actors who do most of the heavy lifting with the characters' personalities. (I especially liked the chemistry between Rebecca Rittenhouse and Betty Gabriel as Serena and Nari, and found myself wishing the film didn't waste both of their characters.) A big part of what elevated the original Unfriended for me was that the scares were a vehicle for exploring the main characters and just what an awful bunch of people they actually were, such that, when they died, I both cared about their deaths and couldn't help but feel that Laura was justified in coming after them. I hated the characters in Unfriended, but that was precisely the emotion that the film wanted me to have, and it pulled it off for all the right reasons. Here, however, what little insight we get into these people feels like an utter waste, especially as it concerns Matias, the guy who started all of this in the first place through his selfish actions. Only at the very end does the film finally figure out what to do with him beyond serve as an avatar for the viewers, and by then, it's too little, too late after ninety minutes spent watching these people make every dumb decision you can think of.

And on that note, apparently this film was shipped out to theaters with two different endings, perhaps in a ploy to drum up some unpredictability and encourage people to see it more than once. Having read a synopsis (spoiler warning for that link, obviously) for both of this film's endings, I can say that I was lucky to have seen the one that I did. The ending that I saw salvages the film somewhat, giving it a theme beyond "let's see how high we can send teenagers jumping out of their seats" with a Twilight Zone/Black Mirror-esque twist about overreliance on technology. It isn't much, but it ended the film on a comparative high note. The other ending, however, looked like a pile of nihilistic hot garbage from what I read, one that, had it been attached to my showing of the film, likely would've left me walking out of the theater with steam coming out of my ears and a 1 out of 5 review ready to flow from my fingers. So, if you do see this, be forewarned -- or better yet, wait for the DVD so you can pick the good ending.

Finally, we get to the presentation of technology, another reason why the original Unfriended worked so well -- and like before, another point where this film stumbles. Unfriended took its premise of being set entirely on a computer screen and went all the way with it, fully committing to portraying the technology and websites of 2014-15 as accurately as possible -- such that, when things started diverging from how they actually worked, it was a clue that the ghost of Laura Barns was in the system, wreaking havoc. It played by a supernatural version of the "One Big Lie" rule of science fiction, in which, save for the one unrealistic thing that has to be handwaved with technobabble for the plot to work (in this case a ghost), the story plays out according to how the protagonist's computer actually functions. Here, on the other hand, computer terms like "wardriving" are thrown around without much concern for what they actually mean, Matias' new computer behaves in unrealistic ways, the hackers' manipulation is represented with flashy effects, and the "dark web" is based around a virtual interface that resembles a video game. I have been on the dark web to see what the hype is about, and it basically looks like a normal web browser, except way slower and with all the advertising being drug-related. If anything, large parts of it resemble '90s Geocities sites or 2000s message boards, the connection speeds alone preventing the sort of slick visual design that this film uses. The "One Big Lie" of the story should've been the existence of snuff films, something that remains an urban legend even though the dark web has given it new life in the form of "red rooms" and other underground websites. (For semantic purposes, videos of fatal accidents, suicides, cartel/terrorist executions, and serial killers filming their "hobby" are not considered snuff films, as they were not created with the intent to profit from them. So don't @ me.) Instead, we get a film that feels like a modern version of those bad '90s thrillers about hackers taking over your computer and your life that were clearly made by screenwriters who had never used the internet, this time fleshed out with info gleaned from articles, YouTube videos, and creepypasta about the dark web, without actually trying to follow up the research and see if it was anything more than clickbait.

The Bottom Line

If you want an actually interesting and scary take on this subject matter, check out Welcome to the Game, an indie horror game that costs about half as much as a movie ticket. This film ignores everything that elevated the first film above its premise, and winds up being exactly the sort of film that we all expected that one to be. Wait for it to hit video, if you must.

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