Cyberbullies Get Deleted in Unfriended (2014)

Way back in 2001, Japanese horror director Kiyoshi Kurosawa released a film called Kairo (a.k.a. Pulse). An apocalyptic story, Kairo told the tale of a group of Japanese college students who are investigating the death of their friend and its connection to a mysterious Web site that promised the change for the living to communicate with the dead. As the movie unfolds, it turns out that the site is allowing hordes of dead spirits to invade the world of the living, which in turn causes people to either commit suicide or simply vanish, leaving behind nothing but a shadow-shaped arrangements of ash.

The heavy-handed message of Kairo was its metaphorical prediction that the Internet would inevitably cause people's sense of community to collapse. This would lead to an epidemic of depression and dispair as more and more individuals become separated from their fellow human beings because of too much technology invading our lives.

Well, it's 2015, the Internet is as popular as ever, and the dead have yet to initiate doomsday against the living via our computers, cell phones, tablets and other networked devices. What we actually do have now are cyberbullies, and they take the center stage in Unfriended, a 2014 horror film by Levan Gabriadze. Unfriended handles the social shortcomings of the Internet much more deftly than Kairo; instead of ponderously moping over the pending death of social communities, Unfriended reveals the dangerous superficiality--and anonymous hostility--of Internet-based social relations. Read on for my complete review.

Unfriended begins with high school student Blaire (Shelley Hennig) talking to her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) via a video connection on the Internet. Their video chat grows into a small group discussion as four of their other friends dial in, but an additional, faceless participant by the account name "billie227" also arrives and cannot be disconnected from the chat. As strange things begin to happen and the nameless participant begins to reveal secrets about the teens, they suspect that billie227 is somehow connected to Laura (Heather Sossaman), a teenager who killed herself the year before as the result of cyberbullying. Is billie227 out to avenge the death of Laura, or has Laura herself somehow returned from the grave?

The basic story of Unfriended is routine: Tales of a mean-spirited prank going awry and resulting in the systematic slaying of the guilty parties (usually high school or college students) is a standard plot outline for many horror films that feature angry ghosts or vengeful slashers. It isn't the first film to poke fun at the flimsy social bonding of dominant social cliques among teenagers (Heathers, Mean Girls, etc.). It also isn't the first film that depicts already-tense relationships between a group of competitive, self-important teenagers being thrown into emotional meltdown when a supernatural element enters the picture (Bad Kids Go to Hell, All Cheerleaders Die, etc.). What makes this film different from others of its type is its involvement of the Internet as a form of communication, social organization, and how it provides the illusion of community even though its members are separated by miles.

Unlike many other horror films where clueless characters wander off by themselves to their doom, the characters in Unfriended are genuinely alone--no one has to go anywhere outside of their own homes in order to find death. They may interact with each other as if they are in the same room, but the facade of such intimacy unravels as the characters begin to die and the dwindling number of survivors slowly understand that they are in fact alone no matter how many other people they are talking to on their computers. In a particularly tense scene, one of the teenagers logs into a random video chat site to find help for her dying friends, but all she encounters is either indifference or obscene insults from a parade of remote strangers.

Underlying the mood of isolation is how the mysterious stranger reveals secrets the friends have been keeping from each other, secrets that call the so-called friendships that hold this group together into serious doubt. The message here seems to be that if deceptive friendships are bad enough when they are conducted in person, they're made even worse by the Internet because it allows for anonymity and the rapid circulation of damaging rumors, pictures and videos. Whereas Kairo mourned what its makers perceived to be the downfall of traditional community ties at the hands of the Internet, Unfriended took a different approach by showing how the Internet enables the worst aspects of human nature. As such, Unfriended is the more engaging, more emotionally raw movie.

Complementing to the film's themes of isolation and the over-dependency on the Internet is how the film is shot: it takes place entirely through the multiple video feeds and text chats on a single computer screen. For this reason, some have described Unfriended as a "found footage" movie for its usage of found footage film conventions (e.g., poor-quality video footage, no cutaway shots to events taking place outside the view of a hand-held camera, no background music cues, etc.). Some viewers might be annoyed at this unconventional approach to shooting a cinematic narrative, but this approach is what makes the film work as a horror movie.

By limiting the audiences' view to only what the characters see (in this case, what Blaire sees on her computer screen), the film has an extremely claustrophobic feel. It's also easier to empathize with the characters because you're carried along for the ride when the Internet fails them and they realize that there is no escape from the stranger who invaded what was supposed to be an ordinary group video chat.

Unfriended smartly grounds its story in cyberbullying and the technology that allows it to happen; as such, it's one of the best found footage films I've ever seen. That said, be sure to watch this on a screen with high enough resolution so you can see every detail on the computer displays. The text chats give away important clues about the characters, particularly the pre-high school relationship between Blaire and Laura.


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