Friday, May 15, 2015

Review: UNFRIENDED: Self and Selfability

The line that weighed most heavily with me from Blair Witch Project was: "I'm scared to close my eyes. I'm scared to open them." Can't look. Can't look away. Multiply that by the immersion of youth into communications technology that has happened since and you get this film.

Beautiful Blair, one of her school's alpha chicks, is languidly teasing her boyfriend Mitch through a Skype screen. He's horny and orders her to unbutton her top, flashing a knife and talking tough. She grins playfully and tells him she likes his violence. This does and doesn't sound creepy. It does because it is but it doesn't because we've already caught her looking at a teenage suicide on youtube. Mitch's Skype call interrupted her from looking at the video that led to the suicide. But, hey, she's only sixteen.

The pair are themselves interrupted by a gaggle of friends also on Skype. This is all taunts and giggles but they all notice the silent extra person in the space, the generic head and shoulders placeholder avatar who doesn't speak and can't be identified. A few group runs at shaking the anomaly off fail and they just go ahead with the ol' collective fat-chew. Then the plain-Jane avatar starts speaking in text.

By now you will recognise that this is going to be a story of revenge for the suicide and a lot of high school bitchiness will be punished. That really really really is not a spoiler. This film makes no secret of its journey any more than Halloween did back in 1978. The point is not in the plot (which I'm not going to spoil, regardless).

The entirety of the screen is occupied by the computer screen of one of the characters. We do not physically leave this rectangle. (Here's a sidepoint: in the Blair Witch era, the film's authenicity as a found footage piece was compounded in the cinema by being screened as a 4X3 near square in accordance with the original ratio of the raw footage, Unfriended is in the shape of the 16X9 screens whose shape was influenced by cinema. There ya go!)

But we don't need to leave it. The screen is turgid with diversions and utility. The Chrome browser, the side by side thumbnails of the Skypers' webcams, Facebook sessions, Messenger exchanges, Youtube videos, Spotify playlists: none of the characters appears anywhere but on a subset of this screen. The confounding of artifice with raw experience that Brian O'Blivion warned us of in Videodrome has come to us but not as he planned, at the ready will of its users rather than an anonymous corporation.

As the entity (is it ghost or revenging hacker?) insinuates itself into the friends' space and compels them to play against each other and the results are brittle and violent. For all the fuck-you worldliness anyone of this age must assume they are raw, scared and alone. Any screaming at the screen would be audible to parents in other rooms as just more of their teenager's histrionics and probably about something wincingly trivial: these young people, wired to the world as they are, are alone and more vulnerable than if they were loosening down at a party.

The coup of Unfriended, the thing that lifts it above all the teen horror remakes and retreads I saw in the trailers before it, is that it not only understands teenagers and their rough but sophisticated pecking jungle but how this has only been intensified with technology. It's not the fact of the technology but their naturalised engagement with it that is being understood on screen. And we are at once in the future-now and the tradition of horror that creates unease by the steady removal of control. The signal of the webcams through the Skype connections render these pretty faces distorted and monstrous almost constantly; sometimes they seem even to have lost their physical youth. Even before the time-limit games that the cyber-intruder compels them to they are no better able to pull the plug at the mains than a human pokies disaster is able to walk away after running out of coins.

The other strongly aspect of the online world so brilliantly understood here is that is creates its own digesis, its own world of logic, emotion and functionality. Sudden asides between two characters in Messenger are like confidential scenes. Clicks on reference videos or websites serve as thought balloons or voiceovers. The stream of consciousness in clicks is really no more alien than Joyce's was in words as it is familiar to its audiences as daily reality. When Billie infiltrates even this and it becomes momentarily difficult to tell her from the others in pranking or self-incriminating mode. For each door the online world opens a dungeon door closes somewhere else.

This film has been compared in preference to Hideo Nakata's earlier Chatroom but the comparison is as uncomprehending as it is unfair. Nakata's film presents the visualisations of a text-only world that was obsolete while his film was in production (based on a play from the early 2000s). I haven't used anything like irc for many a moon but can readily recall the constant buzz between what I imagined I was communicating with and what it might actually be. When the characters in Chatroom took to the outside world they didn't know what the antagonist looked like. In Unfriended, everyone knows what everyone looks and sounds like. They know the decor in each others' bedrooms. Even the faceless interloper takes on an identity that will forever be playing on Youtube, eternally ridiculed, eternally ridiculous, the delete button greyed out and unreachable.

I've rambled and there's probably a ton more to say but this will do for now. Oh, one thing: due to the extreme intimacy of this film's world in a screen in a screen, the hard and expert work done on the sound and editing that brings it as close as the screen you are reading this on and the natural pacing and overall acceleration (all kept within an easy 83 minutes!), demands that you see it in the front rows of a cinema. Don't wait for a more controlled loungeroom tv or (worse still, despite the apparent irony overload) a computer screen. See it where it can hit you. Now!

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