Movie Review: “Unfriended”

Starring
Shelley Hennig, Moses Jacob Storm, Will Peltz, Renee Olstead, Jacob Wysocki, Courtney Halverson
Director
Levan Gabriadze

Technology has become so integral to our daily lives that it was only a matter of time before someone made a movie that unfolds entirely on a computer screen, and though “Unfriended” isn’t the first to use this gimmick (Nacho Vigalondo’s “Open Windows” employed a similar premise, as did a recent episode of “Modern Family”), you can be certain that it won’t be the last. But for as miserable as that viewing experience may sound, Levan Gabriadze’s “Unfriended” actually does a surprisingly good job of holding your interest. Where Gabriadze fails is in creating a horror film that isn’t plagued by the same poor writing, tired clichés and shallow characters that commonly exist within the genre, making this supernatural slasher movie for the social media generation a lot less enjoyable than it could have been.

The film takes place over a Skype call among a group of high school friends who apparently spend their nights chatting with one another from the comfort of their homes instead of socializing in person, because that’s what kids do these days. When an anonymous user enters the chat without an invitation, they initially think that they’re being harassed by a trolling hacker, only to discover that the stranger is posing as Laura Barns, a former classmate who committed suicide exactly one year ago after being cyberbullied due to an embarrassing video posted on the web. Blaire (Shelley Hennig) believes that it might be the vengeful spirit of Laura punishing them for what happened, but she swears they had nothing to do with it. When the stranger begins revealing dirty secrets that turn the friends against each other, and then gruesomely kills them one by one for their apparent role in Laura’s death, they realize that this isn’t some sick prank, but something much worse.

“Unfriended” will no doubt have its share of detractors due to the film’s unconventional presentation, but the computer gimmick works better than you’d imagine, to the point that it’s somewhat surprising it even took this long for someone to consider taking this approach. However, although there’s a lot to admire about the concept and the technical skill required to pull off such a seamless visual trick (contrary to what some might think, Gabriadze didn’t simply point the camera at a computer screen and yell “Action!”), the movie is constantly getting in its own way. For a film made for tech-savvy teenagers who can juggle multiple apps with their eyes closed, there’s a maddening amount of hand-holding that takes place, from the way Hennig’s character hovers over text with her cursor to ensure the audience is following along, to the time it takes her to perform a simple task.

Additionally, the consistently shoddy video quality and disconnections are incredibly annoying (not even Skype is that unreliable), while the sloppy continuity errors are so obvious that you’d have a harder time not noticing them. The acting is also pretty bad across the board with the exception of its leading lady, though Jacob Wysocki does earn a few laughs as the comic relief of the group. And while the movie builds some nice tension with delayed chat messages, dropped calls and slow-moving download status bars, it doesn’t have any genuine scares, especially since many of the death scenes were not only ruined in the movie’s marketing campaign, but are made virtually indecipherable by the pixelated screens that Gabriadze relies on far too often.

A morality tale about cyberbullying with shades of “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and “The Ring,” “Unfriended” should be applauded for addressing a very serious issue in today’s culture of anonymity-driven public shaming, but the fact that it’s surrounded by so much stupidity weakens its message. If only as much thought was put into the script as the execution of its visual gimmick, because while the film starts out as a really clever entry in the horror genre, it eventually devolves into a bunch of nonsensical screaming and infighting between the characters that undoes all the good work that precedes it. “Unfriended” is still worth seeing for the experience alone, but it’s one you can probably wait for until after it leaves theaters. That way, you can just watch the movie on your computer, preferably with a bunch of friends over Skype while you simultaneously browse the web, post pics to Instagram and stalk people on Facebook.

  

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