Unfriended: Dark Web (2018)

JULY 20, 2018


The thing about a gimmick movie is that once the novelty wears off (20 minutes or so, tops) it has to justify not only the gimmick, but the narrative itself. The thing about a SEQUEL to a gimmick movie is that it has to improve on everything just to break even, as it no longer has the novelty going for it. Luckily, Unfriended: Dark Web is up to the task, and as a bonus it's entirely unrelated to the first, so if you haven't seen it you can go in "blind" to this one and get the thrill of seeing the gimmick actually work while seeing a better movie to boot. If you have seen the original, then yeah it's gonna feel a bit like deja vu for a while, but thankfully they hook you in relatively early with its new villain and scenario, while implementing the limitations of the desktop in new ways.

It also avoids one of the problems of the first film, which is that our protagonists were kind of scummy. The usual love triangle crap, the bullying, the constant shit-talking... sure, it's all "normal" stuff but with so much of the movie dwelling on these personal flaws, I can't say I was too broken up about any of them getting offed by the supernatural presence, and it made it very much a "teen" movie. This time they're not only older (read: more tolerable to older audiences), but also a pretty charming and genuinely caring group of friends (old college pals), with no hidden secrets from one another and very little squabbling. When Betty Gabriel (Blumhouse's MVP between this, Upgrade, Purge 3, and of course Get Out) announces she's engaged to Rebecca Rittenhouse's character, everyone is super happy for them and congratulatory - if such a thing happened in the first film they'd be broken up by the end of it, and everyone would talk shit about them in sidebar convos.

And they're all innocent of the crime in question this time around; our protagonist decides to help himself to a laptop that has been left in a lost and found for weeks (so he's kind of a thief, yeah, but 3-4 weeks? They ain't coming back!) and it turns out it belongs to a guy who is deep into the subtitular Dark Web, in this case folks that watch (and pay for) snuff films. So the owner wants the laptop back and threatens to kill the hero's friends (all Skyping for their monthly online game night) if he doesn't. Sure, it's hokey, but under the guise of hacking, it's actually scarier than the first film's all purpose supernatural nonsense, because while I don't think a ghost can take control of my laptop I do believe a hacker could if he wanted to. I don't know enough about hacking to know their limitations, but it all seems plausible enough, at least in theory. At one point the hacker manages to splice together a tape of one of the friends' Vlogs to make it sound like he's threatening to shoot up a mall, prompting the police to come to his house and open fire - it's something that's actually happened more than once (they call it "swatting", and it's had tragic outcomes) but the speed in which the hacker does it, seemingly able to find the exact words he needs from the videos to cut together his message, seems like he has a ghost helping him. So you still gotta suspend some disbelief, but in *general* it's a much more believable threat than the first one, so coupled with the more engaging cast, it makes for an overall better experience.

As for the desktop display (if you're somehow in the dark - the entire movie unfolds on a view of the protagonist's desktop, with Skype, Facebook, etc. giving it its content), it works pretty much the same way, with the hero moving windows around and occasionally (unnaturally) pausing his actions and circling the cursor around things the filmmaker wants to make sure you read/register. Since the plot revolves around snuff videos there's an easy way to break up long talking stretches by having someone play one (though I think if you've seen the trailer you've pretty much seen them all) and new hero Matias isn't as fidgety as the first film's Blaire, so it's less "busy" than the original, as well. And they do a switcheroo of one of my favorite little details in the first, where we see Blaire wrestle with how to say things (and in some cases, not end up saying them at all) by typing and erasing - here we see Matias' girlfriend occasionally starting to type a response (via the little ... animation we're all familiar with by now) only to walk it back.

She's doing that because they're fighting over his inability to commit to learn sign language, as the woman is deaf. He keeps making attempts for her to understand him, such as making an app that converts what he types into video signs, but apparently won't make much effort to learn to read her signs, asking her to type out everything during their Skype convos, in other words cares more about himself being understood than understanding her. This has a few uses in the movie, such as when the hacker attacks her roommate and she is unable to hear it, and also plays a part in one of the film's endings - because there are two, and so far there's no way to tell which one you're getting (I won't spoil details, but one involves a van and the other involves a grave, and I got the van one). With no way to know which one you're getting it's a pretty dumb gimmick, if you ask me, as I can't imagine anyone would want to buy a ticket and sit through the movie again just in case they got the other one, and I fear it will just lead to people wandering in near the film's climax, hoping to see the other one after their other movie got out. Please don't make this a "thing", studios.

Basically, if you've ever considered putting some tape over your laptop's built-in webcam, this is the movie for you. The first one tackled teen suicide and bullying, i.e. real problems, but also ones that maybe not everyone could identify with, which might lessen its ability to unnerve you (plus, again, it was a crafty ghost instead of a living human killer). But everyone's probably had a hacker scare of some sort by now (including me; a few weeks ago I got an email from AMC thanking me for buying five tickets to a movie in Maryland), so the whole "this is how fucked you can be" approach really works well, and once again they use real-world apps and sites as opposed to a totally made up internet like you see in goofy shit like The Net. When the killer calls, they're able to use our familiarity with the Skype and Messenger sounds to their advantage, and maybe give us pause the next time we hear them coming from our own computers. I don't know if I'd ever want to watch it again, but it got the job done as a "cyber thriller" and proved that there could be a running franchise out of this concept so long as they find new plots/characters to revolve around instead of trying to build up some stupid mythology like the Paranormal Activity movies did.

What say you?


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