As internet usage continues to grow and become an everyday part of life, the idea that you are only a few clicks away from genuinely nasty and real, graphic material still lingers. The moral panic about the Dark Web has gone on for some time now within mainstream media, yet has (surprisingly) not made too much of an impact on films. The Dark Web as a concept, offers almost limitless potential for exploring the dark side of human nature and exploits the fear of some that the internet provides gateways to criminal activity. The internet has been primarily a teenage concern as they are traditionally represented as spending more time on it, but the ubiquity of smart phones and other devices means users of all ages are more engaged with technology than ever before. Unfriended: Dark Web deals with this by aging the central group, getting socially conscious on a global level and upping the ante in cruelty to create an experience that is engaging, if ultimately flawed.
Mathias (Colin Woodell) has a new laptop. It is far quicker than his old one, meaning that he is able to continue developing an app which will allow him to communicate with his deaf girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras). Keen to display what he has made for them, he opens a video chat but she is less than impressed. Dejected, he takes up an invitation for a Game Night with friends over Skype, but activity on the laptop soon throws the group into very real danger.
The whole film playing out on a laptop screen and other mobile devices could easily end up as a gimmick, with nothing more to offer, but Dark Web‘s design adds a great deal to proceedings. Furthermore, while the concept initially seems tailor-made to short attention spans, the fact that the screen is almost constantly filled with information in different forms actually encourages a far more actively engaged viewing. Just like those in the film, the audience are having to keep their attention on several elements at once – messages in text form, silenced video chats and other background processes must all be noticed and understood for the story to move along.
This suitably murky tech-thriller is only let down by a need to be ‘something bigger’ by its climax. The strength of the film lies in the fact that unlike most films of this ilk, our characters are actually engaging and likeable. This also makes the content all the more shocking as we’re not in a position where we feel that these people in some way deserve to be victims. So often, genre characters are lined up to reveal character flaws so we can safely enjoy the unfolding actions against them. In Unfriended, the reveals only serve to add more humanity to the characters, giving the film a rather heightened sense of cruelty. Yes, lead character Mathias has stolen a laptop, but his reasons for doing so are clearly laid out so as to absolve him of most blame. As outlined above, the audience is placed in the same position of the characters and this no doubt adds to our empathy with them.
With a film so focused on different methods of communication, it is perhaps no surprise that the film’s central concern is that despite all of these methods there are still flaws in communication. Failure to communicate adequately is a human flaw and while technology can make it easier in some cases, technology is open to corruption and manipulation – subjects which are tackled throughout the runtime. The film gives us a very clear time and space. This makes it feel very urgent, but I fear some of the references stand to date it quite quickly – Cambridge Analytica gets a namecheck, for example, as does the Flint Water Crisis and another number of conspiracy theories. Still, it is refreshing to have current issues like police brutality, technological manipulation and government mistrust feature in a film primarily aimed at the young.
The most disturbing elements are obviously in the video clips shown in the trailer and promotional material. However, the film itself is restrained in its use of these clips – cutting off before the worst elements and working on the suggestion of what is to happen. Chat logs offer horrifying descriptions, but overall, it does appear to function on the principle that less-is-more until it feels necessary for the narrative to let loose. This is far more refreshing than what could have been a showcase of various torture methods enacted against young women. Instead, we’re thrown back to the reactions of the group and we experience their horror far more keenly than anything we could be shown directly.
Unfriended also features two different theatrical endings and a viewing of the film offers no clues as to which one you’ll see. While the ending I saw was fairly satisfying, by description, the other option sounded much more in keeping with the real strengths I found within the film. I have to admit to being slightly surprised by such a strategy, but perhaps it is to add another layer to the way in which technology can be manipulated and used to cause confusion in everyday human interactions. While I would describe the film as a grim and engaging entry into a subgenre which I imagine has plenty of chance to expand, I’m not driven enough to revisit it within the cinema on the off-chance that I get a different ending.
In summary, Dark Web is let down by a few later narrative choices, but the strength of its central characters and supporting cast is enough to sustain interest. In addition, the presentation of violence is remarkably restrained and the laptop screen gimmick adds a great deal to telling a layered story. Recommended to those who want a little more bite in traditionally softer teen-aimed horror.