When I reviewed the first “Unfriended” film in 2015, I described it as a time capsule; an inside joke between its creators and anyone familiar with the technology it uniquely and realistically integrated that would only fully pay off if/when, years later, its original audience watched younger, uninitiated viewers try to understand it outside of the context of its time.
As a refresher: “Unfriended” was a movie about a group of teenagers being bullied by what is ostensibly the vindictive ghost of a friend of theirs who’d killed herself after also being bullied the year before. The ghost contacted, manipulated, and killed her old so-called friends, each of whom turned out to be fairly horrible people, through their computers, and the action of the film took place in real time while they video chatted, from the perspective of one character in particular and her computer screen. Its biggest strength was, again, its realism. The teens didn’t talk like out of touch older people wrote their lines, and the world building was believable down to tabs open in the background on the point of view character’s screen that she didn’t even interact with at any point in the film. The film’s biggest weakness, on the other hand, was that, as more about each of the dead girl’s friends is revealed throughout the movie, audiences find themselves with no character to really root for by the end.
Unfriended: Dark Web, one of the most compelling horror movies out so far this year despite its own flaws, recycles that same premise — showing the inventive and horrific demise of a group of friends while they’re video chatting and from the perspective of one of their screens — but with a chilling twist. Rather than watching a vengeful teenage ghost get her revenge on those who have wronged her as a metaphor for the tragically circuitous cycle of cyber bullying and self harm, this time around the action follows an older group of friends who do not “deserve” what happens to them and, more importantly, whose tormentors are real. Instead of a ghost meant to make us think about the secrets friends keep and the consequences of cyber bullying and other forms of social media manipulation, this time the villains are those denizens of the deepest, most twisted parts of the internet. The kind of genuine evil that leaves run of the mill reddit and 4chan users logging off and shaking in their boots. The kind of people who do business on The Silk Road and both create and trade horrifying snuff films online.
While portraying this terrifying and unfortunately real community has been attempted in other places (this is technically the premise of the “V/H/S” franchise and was even the crux of the second episode of the second season of “Criminal Minds” back in 2006, and the 2013 chat roulette-centered horror film “The Den,” among others), Unfriended: Dark Web, again because of its commitment to actual technological realism and several of its twists that happen by the end, might be the most successful version of this type of story so far, even incorporating cryptocurrencies, accurate techno jargon, and the cruel and dangerous practice of “swatting” someone (if you’re unfamiliar with this last term, Google it along with the name of Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivor and teen activist David Hogg).
The character whose screen we watch Unfriended: Dark Web unfold through is Matias (Colin Woodell, “Unsane”), who appears to be in his twenties and who starts the film by attempting to run a program he invented in order to better communicate with his girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras, “Switched at Birth” TV series), who is deaf, on a computer that clearly isn’t his. Borrowed, donated, stolen, or bought we as the audience do not know, but Matias’ difficulty logging into “his” new MacBook provides us with the first jokes of the film. Like its predecessor, Unfriended: Dark Web is a product of its zeitgeist — among the passwords he attempts, unsuccessfully, are “covfefe” and “feelthebern.” This is what I meant when I said, about the first film, that it would be hilarious and surreal to watch teenagers watch it ten years down the line. So much of its extreme, honestly otherwise unparalleled timeliness, will likely not hit as close to home even within the next few years.
After setting up “his” “new” computer, Matias is made to deal with more than just Papaya glitches. He also becomes inundated with messages from women, all thinking they are speaking to the MacBook’s previous owner whom, based on log in information automatically populated by multiple apps and websites on the computer, went by the name “Norah C. IV.” Once Matias figures out who Norah really is, who else is involved, and what they want, it’s already too late for the friends he’s having a game night with over video chat — Nari (Betty Gabriel — yes, as in the grandma from “Get Out”), Serena (Rebecca Rittenhouse, “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot”), Lexx (Savira Windyani, “Ink & Rain”), Damon (Andrew Lees, “Newness”), and AJ (Connor Del Rio, “Little Savages”) — and maybe even Amaya and her roommate Kelly (Chelsea Alden, “The Tale”), too.
This is the most suspenseful part of the film. Matias figures out what’s going on before anyone else, and very intentionally does not tell them in an attempt to save their lives. And not in an infuriating, seriously Peter Parker what is your problem, Aunt May and MJ would be so much safer if you actually told them what was going on way, either. You know why Matias doesn’t tell them, and you ache with him as he desperately tries to figure out how else to keep his loved ones safe. Another major strength of Unfriended: Dark Web is the realistic relationships and dialogue between them (more relatable and believable than the first film, by far). One of the biggest mistakes we think Mattias makes relatively early on is even a misguided interpretation of the advice and suggestions of his friends, whose opinions, concerns, and ideas he obviously respects, and the tensest moments of the film — and when the acting, particularly Rittenhouse’s and Woodell’s, truly shines — are when, after they all do find out what’s going on, each of the characters simultaneously schemes their own way out while also attempting to act like everything’s fine.
Before anything else though, something needs to be said about Amaya. This is the third movie I’ve reviewed this year that features a deaf character in it who is especially vulnerable because she is deaf. I thought this was an interesting choice in “A Quiet Place” — largely because they cast a deaf actress there as well — but here it’s honestly kind of gross. Amaya is a plot device. She exists to be Matias’ motivation and nothing more. Even the Papaya software he creates, in her words, is designed not to help him understand her but, rather, to help her understand him.
There is also a brief mention, barely addressed, of Amaya having signed Matias up for an ASL class in the past and Matias, upon arrival, panicking and leaving before he could learn a thing. While I want to give the film credit for even addressing this discrepancy, and for portraying Amaya as — justifiably! — weary with Matias’ attempts to do everything other than communicate in the way that is easiest and most natural to her, it also doesn’t do anything with these issues other than, again, briefly, stating that they exist. Before and after she calls him out, Amaya’s two functions are motivating Matias and being the only character who has no idea what is going on, even as she literally walks into the lion’s den. She is the audience’s surrogate girlfriend, beautiful, vulnerable, only around (and only intermittently, at that) to be a damsel that heightens the stakes.
So while I want to give credit (as with “A Quiet Place”) for casting a deaf actress and having her and others’ relationships with her advance the plot, the ways in which she does this (or how it is done to her, without her doing much at all) ends up not quite landing right. The same goes for other types of diversity in the film. Of the three main female characters aside from Amaya, one is Indonesian, one is black, and the other, a white woman, is engaged to one of the other two. Of the remaining three straight white guys, one is British, so uh . . . I guess there’s that. While I initially found the casting of these characters to be refreshing (yay representation!) in retrospect it feels somewhat like a filled up, college brochure-esque diversity bingo card. (That being said, it is still cool to be able to say that a woman of color is among the first to die without spoiling which character it is, so, progress?)
Another issue with Unfriended: Dark Web is its violation of conventional genre rules, as outlined in classic horror romps like “Scream” and “The Cabin in the Woods.” More specifically, its victims’ transgressions in no way justify, in terms of scale or scope, the brutal comeuppance levied against them by the end of the film. In fact, to begin with, only one of them even does anything wrong and, even then, his mistake turns out to not quite be what it seemed. In this way, the premise and mechanism at the heart of Unfriended: Dark Web is the opposite of its predecessor, in which each of its characters — albeit also over-punished — has done something terrible in order to “deserve” their fate. At first glance this may seem to violate the aforementioned frightening film formula but, on the other hand, it can also be argued that writer/director Stephen Susco’s movie circumvents that rule on purpose as part of its construction of a larger point — the idea that, because of the nature of the dark web itself (and the natures of the villains we meet by the movie’s end), these characters really don’t have any agency at all and, rather than undermining the logic of the movie, that explains and heightens its sadnesses and scares.
So while yes, if evaluating Unfriended: Dark Web based on these parameters, it may seem that Matias and his friends are “punished” in extreme and unwarranted ways, consider the idea that they are not being punished at all — just attacked, because that’s what internet/troll culture is actually like, and what are the villains of this film if not the darkest, sickest perversion of the internet trolls we interact with every day that could possibly be conceived (paging season three episode three of “Black Mirror”)? What you, the internet user/s troll/s in any forum are choosing to victimize, for any reason and at any time, do or say does not matter. See any Facebook comment section for proof. Be as calm as you want, bring as much evidence to the table as you want, construct as intelligent and thorough of an argument as you want, attempt to level or compromise with them as much as you want and, from their perspective and within their domain, no matter what, you will lose. Those types of people aren’t trying to have a conversation, learn, or teach. Their only goal is to make strangers uncomfortable and, regardless of how you react, as long as you react, they will think that they have won. As significantly more tragic and dramatic as this iteration of that type of relationship is, it does still follow the same basic idea. Three of the deaths in particular (one by itself and two that are contingent on each other and happen at the same time) illustrate both how little agency the victims have and how much fun the villains are having destroying them. Their powerlessness is contagious and exhausting, and I spent much of this film with my hand over my mouth and at the edge of my seat.
So is this movie “bleak,” as many have said? Yes! But rather than a mark against it, consider that maybe that’s what it’s supposed to be. Even if Matias had not stolen the laptop from the cafe, he and his friends (or anyone and any of theirs) would not necessarily be safe from the types of bad guys who go after them all. We certainly see other victims in the film whose fates are random and undeserved.
This is all part of the reason why I personally prefer the final title, Unfriended: Dark Web over the also-considered “Unfriended: Game Night.” While it’s easy to see why the alternate title was considered (Matias’ friends are video chatting and playing Cards Against Humanity while their torturers are also playing a game, get it! Ha!), again, this plot of film is driven by a cabal of characters inspired by some of the scariest and most dangerous types of people who actually exist and, like some grotesque ouroboros, are only able to because the dark web they created does, too.
With all of that having been said, and as just grounded enough in reality and wholly terrifying as Unfriended: Dark Web is, I do think the franchise should stop here. That’s the difference between, for example, Showtime’s “Dexter” and Comedy Central’s “The Kroll Show.” One of those series put out three perfect seasons and gracefully bowed out before becoming a parody of itself or otherwise played out or old. The other culminated in the finale of “Dexter.” I cannot see any way to expand this series without undermining its original strengths or just becoming flat out gross so, because of how much I’ve loved it so far, I really do hope its second stab was its last. Now, brb. I’m going to go put some tape over my webcam.