Cinema Dispatch: Unfriended: Dark Web

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Unfriended: Dark Web and all the images you see in this review are owned by OTL Releasing and BH Tilt

Directed by Stephen Susco

Somehow this ended up being a week where the three big movies coming out (this, Mama Mia: Here We Go Again, and The Equalizer 2) are all sequels to movies I’ve never seen, and I try not to avoid them if they’re direct sequels or prequels as the lack of context can make it hard to really judge a movie on its merits.  Sure I’ve made exceptions in the past like Barbershop: The Next Cut, but I’ve got enough on my plate as it is to try and catch up on EVERY franchise out there (unless of course it’s the Fast and the Furious which I did binge watch all seven movies before seeing Fate of the Furious), so I just leave those ones up to the other critics.  However, when it comes to sequels like THIS movie which seem to have nothing to do with the original and are mostly just using the name or premise, I’m fine with giving it a shot and looking at it as its own thing.  Heck, I was downright intrigued by this film since it looks like they fixed the main reason I avoided the first one (i.e. there being a GHOST IN THE COMPUTER) and replaced with something at least a LITTLE more grounded!  Does this manage to live up to its premise in ways that the first film didn’t sell me on, or was that the least of this franchise’s problems before I decided to jump onboard?  Let’s find out!!

The movie starts with Matias (Colin Woodell) booting up his new laptop and installing one of his own programs on the hard drive; namely a program designed to parse speech and then translate it into American Sign Language.  This is great because his girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras) is deaf and it will make it that much easier for them to communicate, right?  Well… not quite.  It seems that there’s some tension between the two of them that Matias is gonna have to figure out, but let’s worry about that later!  After all, it’s game night!  Matias’s friends Nari, Serena, Damon, AJ, and Lexx (Betty Gabriel, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Andrew Lees, Connor Del Rio, and Savira Windyani) join with him on a skype call and they start to play Cards Against Humanity in a blatant show of product placement while Matias checks the hard drive of his new computer.  As he looks through it though, it’s clear that the previous owner was into some shady stuff and Matias PROBABLY shouldn’t have… ahem, GOTTEN this computer from somewhere.  These sketchy documents and video files would be bad enough, but it looks like the computer owner (going by the name Charon IV) has found Matias through Facebook and is REALLY determined to get his property back; even if it means hurting someone he loves in the process, like say… oh I don’t know… Amaya?  Okay, but this isn’t THAT out of hand!  All he has to do is give it back, right!?  Well… easier said than done.  Charon IV (Douglas Tait) is willing to do a trade, but Matias has seen too much and will surely get the attention of Charon IV’s friends if he’s not careful which can only make things worse and could put the rest of his friends in danger as well.  What nightmares will Matias find on the computer, and is there anything he can do to stop these people?  Cab Matias outsmart Charon IV and his friends just long enough to save him and his friends this night?  What kind of self-respecting hacker uses a Macbook with OSX on it!?  Not even with a Dual Boot to Linux!?

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“Would you like to import your SNUFF FILMS into iTunes?”     “NO!”     “Importing SNUFF FILMS into iTunes.”     “DANG IT!!”

I wanted to love this movie so very much, but it just ended up breaking my heart.  For the first half of it it’s actually pretty ingenious with the way it manages to build tension and tell a story almost entirely through technology, and I found myself getting swept up in the events onscreen even if the characters themselves weren’t THAT much more interesting than standard horror movie archetypes.  However, things take a bad (yet sadly predictable) turn at about the midpoint and the movie never really recovers from it.  The threat goes from realistic(ish) and human to something wholly unbelievable and therefore entirely uninteresting.  It’s actually almost fascinating and instructive just how much this movie takes an utter nose dive once the threat changes, and it connects with something I’ve always felt was one of the key differences between a GOOD horror movie and a BAD one.  This could have not just been one of the best horror films but the year but MAYBE even a contender for my Top Ten list if they had stayed on track and didn’t diverge so hard in the direction that they did, but sadly Hollywood hasn’t picked me up out of obscurity and flown me to California to sit as the ARBITER OF ALL MOVIES; a position I’ll fully admit I’m PROBABLY not qualified for, but if I DID have it this would certainly be a much better movie.  Maybe.

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This scene doesn’t have enough Nicolas Cage in it.  Can we get more Nicolas Cage in it?

It’s rare that you see a movie that ACTUALLY understand how computers work and how they look when being used, even with movies that are ABOUT computers.  I remember the opening of Nerve (a rather good movie that ALSO has an underwhelming ending) being particularly bad about this as you can tell that the mouse moves in a way that no one has ever moved a mouse before.  Newsflash filmmakers!  We don’t actually move the cursor in a straight line, or at a deliberately even pace.  We swing the bastard around until we’re in the general vicinity and then nudge it to what we’re clicking on!  I know that sounds rather inconsequential, but stuff like that which is so familiar to us can fall into the uncanny valley and the fact that THIS movie gets most of those little details right ended up keeping me engaged with the movie.  What’s even more remarkable though is how it DID take computer use, a visual language most of us are very familiar with, and managed to mine tension out of it in ways that I don’t think have been explored before.  The feeling of tension as he’s diving through someone’s files not knowing what he’ll find, the way that we stack programs on top of each other which allows for things to happen in this movie in our periphery, even certain sound effects that we’re all familiar with or watching a program fail in a way we’ve seen happen a thousand times before adds an extra layer of tension to what we’re seeing.  It’s rather ingenious even if for all I know it’s something they perfected in the last film that they’re just repeating here; but either way, I thought the gimmick worked WONDERFULLY and I kind of want to see more movies that incorporate technology with this kind of creativity and familiarity.

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“Loading… YOUR DOOM!!”

This makes it all the more shameful that the narrative they went with in here ended up falling apart so spectacularly.  Now the first half of the story is actually REALLY solid. When the guy whose computer is stolen is trying to get it back, you can see the desperation in his actions which makes him all the more dangerous and all the more difficult for Matias to keep things from falling apart.   The best kinds of horror movie villains ARE NOT invulnerable, all powerful, or so mysterious as to have no character.  Even slashers like Friday the 13th, Halloween, or A Nightmare on Elm Street, understood that there needs to be a push and pull arc to the story; lest you rob it of its tension.  We can argue the problematic aspects of THE LAST GIRL trope, but the core idea of there being SOMEONE who will survive and fight back is what makes those movie work and help ground the villain into something slightly more believable and therefore that much more frightening.  This is why I have such a problem with ghost movies.  If you can’t DEFINE what the bad guy can do and the film just lets them run wild with whatever powers in any given scene, then what’s the point of rooting for anyone?  Just kill them in the first five minutes if they’re so damn powerful, and let me go the hell home!  There are VERY good exceptions to that like The Shining where the ghosts AREN’T the true villain (they’re there to help Jack’s inner demons run wild) and the Evil Dead films where they do a great job of scaling the ebb and flow of each new attack, but more often than not I just can’t get behind a villain who has no actual PRESENCE in the movie and exists just to make bad things happen.  I bring all this up because once the shit hits the fan at the halfway point and THE TRUE BAD GUYS reveal themselves, the film essentially turns into that kind of badly made ghost movie and is effectively over barring some drawn out death scenes.

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Oh, what are you worried about?  That monitor is CLEARLY photo shopped!

There’s literally no way that our protagonists can oppose them and THE TRUE BAD GUYS can do anything they want with no effort, so what’s the point?  It gets downright RIDICULOUS how much they can do at the drop of a hat as elaborate schemes are created and executed within minutes, and their ranks are so large that they can basically find anyone anywhere to do whatever they want in the real world.  These scenes at the end COMPLETELY shattered my suspension of disbelief and it all feels so unnecessary!  Overwhelming force can be effectively used in some cases, but the lack of push and pull between our antagonists and protagonists (there’s literally NOTHING the protagonists do in the third act that amounts to anything or harms THE TRUE BAD GUYS to any degree) on top of the absolutely LUDICROUS ending they expect us to buy for even a second, it just boils down to an uninspired mess that REALLY could have been something if they toned things down a bit and made THE TRUE BAD GUYS feel at least a TINY bit human.  And before anyone says anything, yes there is a SORT OF explanation for how this all “played out” at the very end, but trying to parse out how THAT’S supposed to have worked is just as hard as trying to figure out how the rest of it would have happened WITHOUT that frankly lazy explanation.

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Darn it, Cenobites!  Are you pulling that crap from Hellraiser: Hellworld again!?

The problem with this movie isn’t the gimmick, the budget, the no-name actors, or even the basic idea of the story.  You can make a good movie out of pretty much anything, and the first half of this film is a great example of that, but the script just fails to pan out in an interesting way and it would have been true if this was in any other movie.  I still recommend it for the most part, ESPECIALLY if you don’t have my particular hang-up about these kinds of horror movie antagonists, because there are enough great moments in this movie to make it worth seeing at some point.  Maybe not in the theater as there are plenty of much better movies (with GOOD endings) that you can see right now instead, but this is far from the worst that Blumhouse has ever done and I’d certainly like to see this kind of movie done with a BETTER story to go with it.  Maybe one without wizard programmers who can HACK THE PLANET, though I will give the filmmakers credit for how tacky the design of their SECRET WEBSITE is.  THE RIVER STYX!  Wow, did it take these jokers all day to come up with that one?

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