First-timer Stephen Susco directs the sequel to ‘Unfriended,’ the surprise hit all-on-a-laptop thriller.
Sadly, it looks like we have to call it a subgenre now: the species of found-footage movie that unfolds entirely on a computer screen, with viewers seeing nothing but an array of browser windows, Skype chats, etc., while protagonists confront boogeymen online. What began a few years ago as a curiosity (Nacho Vigalondo’s 2014 Open Windows was an early example) turned into a hit when the first Unfriended earned over $60 million worldwide. So now we get Stephen Susco’s Unfriended: Dark Web, another tiresome example of what producer Timur Bekmambetov is touting as a “new film language”: “Screenlife.” Heaven help us, the producer is reportedly going around the globe teaching master classes in making these things.
This time, the villain attacking young people is not a vengeful ghost (as in the first Unfriended, which premiered in North America at the Fantasia Film Festival under the title Cybernatural), but a group of hackers whose skills and swiftness are so far-fetched they might as well be supernatural. That’s not immediately evident, though: At first, it seems to be just a case of one sicko that wants to retrieve the digital evidence of his crimes.
As we begin, a young man named Matias (Colin Woodell) boots up a stranger’s laptop. He says he bought it off Craiglist, but as we’ll soon learn, the purported seller didn’t bother to wipe a trove of very sensitive video files from the hard drive. We look at empty login screens as an unseen Matias guesses at the stranger’s passwords.
Matias logs on for a video chat with his deaf girlfriend, Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras). He wants to show her an app he has written that will translate his spoken words to sign language. Nobody asks why such a program is needed when the computer already allows them to communicate via text, but never mind that: What we need to know is that Amaya is upset with him and he desperately wants to salvage the relationship.
Our hero logs in to a different Skype session — a group video chat with a handful of friends that decide to play Cards Against Humanity remotely. But Matias evidently has attention-deficit disorder, and while his friends make inane chitchat, he starts digging around his new laptop’s hard drive and looking at its previous owner’s social media accounts.
To cut to the chase (and skip past multiple “this application quit unexpectedly” hiccups, which viewers probably get enough of in the real world): A hidden folder on the computer contains snuff films, and the man who shot them, who calls himself Charon 68, wants them back. Charon 68 is sending Matias threatening chat messages; though he doesn’t know where Matias is, he somehow has no trouble locating Amaya, and threatens to kill her if Matias doesn’t immediately return the laptop.
Early on, Matias has to share some of this with the Cards Against Humanity gang. Figuring out what’s going on becomes a group affair, and Charon 68 (who can see and hear everything happening on the computer) threatens to kill them all if they don’t follow his instructions. Much panic and arguing ensues; lest anyone doubt he’s serious, Charon 68 starts picking them off one by one in increasingly elaborate ways.
The protagonists here aren’t as insufferable as those in the first Unfriended, but Susco’s plot gets harder to buy by the minute; as a first-time director, he doesn’t get much out of his cast; and boy, does this Screenlife gimmick grow thin quickly. While this technique — which they claim is harder to pull off, in technical terms, than it looks — could be useful in some contexts, it’s hard to ignore the mountain of contrivance required to use it for an entire film. And don’t we all spend too much time looking at computers already?
Production companies: Bazelevs Production, Blumhouse Productions, Universal Pictures
Cast: Colin Woodell, Betty Gabriel, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Andrew Lees, Connor Del Rio, Stephanie Nogueras, Savira Windyani, Douglas Tait
Director-screenwriter: Stephen Susco
Producers: Timur Bekmambetov, Jason Blum
Executive producers: Nelson Greaves, Couper Samuelson, Adam Sidman
Director of photography: Kevin Stewart
Production designer: Chris Davis
Costume designer: Cassandra Jensen
Editor: Andrew Wesman
Casting director: John McAlary
Venue: Fantasia Film Festival
Rated R, 88 minutes