UNFRIENDED Movie Review – Be Afraid, Very Afraid of … Social Media
When George Lucas introduced the Force in Star Wars: A New Hope almost forty years ago, little did he know that he was really talking about the Internet (of all things). Like the Force, the Internet surrounds us, penetrates us (Wi-Fi), and binds us, though not in the way we usually imagine. The Internet simultaneously connects us (virtually) while separating us (physically). It’s a trend that’s only accelerated over the last decade with the advent of social media. For some, social media is ground zero for all that ails our society or at minimum, all that ails millennials and post-millennials (or whatever they’re called). Look no further than Levan Gabriadze’s feature-length debut, Unfriended, for a textbook reflection of our current, if somewhat misguided, techno-fears and techno-anxieties. Unfriended is also a standard-issue horror film too, of course, with everything that implies (e.g., shocks, scares, corpses), albeit one driven by a surprisingly well executed gimmick.
That gimmick? With the exception of the final shot, Unfriended unfolds entirely on a MacBook screen (product placement) as a semi-bored teen, Blaire (Shelley Hennig), connects via Skype (more product placement) with her boyfriend, Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), and her friends, Jess (Renee Olstead), Adam (Will Peltz), Ken (Jacob Wysocki), and later, Val (Courtney Halverson). With the exception of tech-geek Ken, Blaire’s friends are of the usual fungible, interchangeable variety, distinguishable only by their physical appearances, gender, and proneness to histrionics when an unwanted, unexpected “guest” appears on their Skype call and promptly begins to wreck all kinds of minor and major havoc, initially as just an annoyance or troll using their dead classmate Laura Barns’ (Heather Sossaman) social-media accounts and later as a Jigsaw-style (Saw series) killer playing deadly games with Blaire and her friends.
Unfriended plays with the idea of an über-hacker (i.e., a real-world individual) rather than an immaterial, if quite literal, ghost in the machine, controlling their computers and leading Blaire and her friends inexorably to gruesome (though mostly offscreen or barely seen) deaths, all in retaliation for the cyber-bullying that led Laura to take her own life a year earlier (recorded on video and distributed on YouTube, because an event doesn’t exist unless it’s been recorded, uploaded, and shared via social media). Gabriadze and his screenwriter, Nelson Greaves, however, set aside that “Is or isn’t a ghost?” question relatively early on, specifically with the second, gory death onscreen. From there, it’s a “Ten Little Indians” inspired countdown until the final confrontation between the survivor(s) and Laura’s ghost (or whatever’s causing everyone’s computer problems). Between those two plot points, the hacker-ghost takes down Blaire and her friends by revealing or forcing them to reveal closely held secrets, from the banal “Who’s been sleeping with who?” game to the culprit(s) who made and distributed the humiliating video that pushed Laura to commit suicide.
For all its topicality or relevance, Unfriended shouldn’t be expected to explore or otherwise examine cyber-bullying with any kind of depth or profundity. It’s not that kind of film, nor should it be. In screenwriting terms, Cyber-bullying offers nothing more than the inciting incident for everything that follows, albeit an incident that lies dormant for an entire year, presumably because ghosts have rules and regulations to follow before they can seek revenge for some past crime real or imagined, an idea most recently present in the Final Destination series (though there it’s Death personified who comes calling a year after another disposable group of twenty-somethings playing teens miraculously escape an accident of some kind, making their unexpected survival their only “crime”).
To his credit, Gabriadze keeps the proceedings visually engaging, borrowing the fixed POV typical of (some) found-footage horror films like Paranormal Activity, thus forcing moviegoers to keep their attention in constant motion. Blaire and her friends appears and disappear in Skype windows, she switches between Skype, iMessage, Facebook, e-mail, and Safari (for all-important, ghost-related web searches). He also throws in occasional pixilation and frozen images, both the result of slow Internet connections (Unfriended’s biggest plausibility problem). The constant, compressed typing rarely gets dull or boring, mostly due to the urgency implicit (and later explicit) in Unfriended: They’re on a countdown clock from the moment Blaire starts the Skype call with her friends and the perpetually unseen hacker-ghost joins their call through the final moment of a MacBook being closed, a fitting end for a film tied so closely to a such a well-executed gimmick.