WRITTEN REVIEW – Unfriended (2015)
Directed by: Leo Gabriadze
Written by: Nelson Greaves
Starring: Shelley Hennig, Moses Jacob Storm, Jacob Wysocki, Renee Olstead, Will Peltz & Courtney Halverson
Release Date: May 1st 2015
Let’s not mince words here, the “found-footage” sub-genre has delivered nothing but duds over the past 15+ years. In 2015 alone we’ve had two of the undisputed worst films of the year attempt for the format (‘The Gallows‘ & ‘Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension‘) but a new challenger approaches and is actually trying something rather novel. Instead of the camera being an “amateur” piece of equipment in a shakey-cam approach, ‘Unfriended‘ takes place entirely on a laptop screen with the actors only being seen through static webcams.
It’s not a wholly original premise (the 2014 Spanish Thriller ‘Open Windows‘ and the legitimately brilliant short film ‘Noah‘ beat it to the punch) but ‘Unfriended‘ is still treading on relatively new ground. From Russian director Leo Gabriadze and distributed by Blumhouse Productions, ‘Unfriended‘ seeks to break the mould of “found-footage” for the social media generation. Is ‘Unfriended‘ worth seeing or should you say “It’s Complicated”?
One year ago, high school student Laura Barns committed suicide after an embarrasing video of herself was uploaded online. On the anniversary of her death, five of her friends are on a Skype chat to each other; Blaire (Hennig), her boyfriend Mitch (Storm) and classmates Jess (Olstead), Ken (Wysocki) and Adam (Peltz). But there’s another person in the chat…Laura Barns, seemingly back from the dead threatening to kill them if they hang up or fail to complete the games she has planned. The friends must discover what is going on and try to survive while coming to terms with the true fate of Laura.
It’s a solid set-up for a movie and despite the many many issues with ‘Unfriended‘ (which I’ll get into later) this movie does actually do a few unique things with the laptop-screen format. Incidentally, I didn’t watch ‘Unfriended‘ on a 50-foot movie screen. I watched it on my laptop. The movie takes place in real-time from Blaire’s MacBook screen (which took a bit of time to get used to as my laptop operates on Windows) and the clock on the top-right corner progresses naturally as Blaire goes through different windows, websites and applications. Technically, ‘Unfriended‘ takes place in one-take when you think of it like that.
You only ever see the actors in ‘Unfriended‘ by seeing their webcams on the screen so the movie does fully commit to its gimmick. It even allows the movie to have some layers of sub-text as Blaire will type a message to a friend but then delete it and re-type it which indicates what she really thinks in a given situation and what she’s willing to tell her friends. It also allows for some nice behind-the-scenes manipulation when Blaire can click off of one application and when she returns to it, it’s been altered by the spirit of Laura Barns.
The movie is also never boring as it moves at a quick pace despite the fact that it’s dramatically un-involving. The issue is that the on-screen characters are meant to be friends and have their insecurities and terrible traits be discovered as the movie progresses so the audience can learn a lesson about cyber-bullying, yadda-yadda-yadda (incidentally, that’s what happened in the superb 2015 TV movie ‘The Cyberbully‘ starring Maisie Williams. A link to pre-order the DVD can be found at the bottom of the page). But the biggest issue with the characterisation of ‘Unfriended‘ is that NONE of these characters are particularly likeable. They’re all dicks from the start so when the rug is meant to be pulled from under them, there’s no dramatic fulfilment. Moments that are meant to endear sympathy from the audience fall flat because these teenagers aren’t redeemable and they don’t even talk like teenagers in the first place.
The script, while clearly predominantly improvised by the young cast, lacks any sort of dramatic or thematic heft, it does contain a few clever “Oh Shit!” moments as well as an oddly compelling game of “Never Have I Ever”. The conceit of having a ghost in the Skype Chat also excuses a few of the technical bloopers. But anyone who has more than a passing interest in computers or social media will easily be able to spot many legitimate technical hiccups such as characters teleporting across their rooms when the editor wanted to use a different take of the actors in front of the webcams.
Also, as pointed out by “YMS”, the bullying video that caused Laura Barns to commit suicide in the first place was uploaded onto YouTube and can still be viewed a year later and has 75,000+ views. But when the ‘Unfriended‘ promotional team uploaded the video as part of their marketing, YouTube deleted the video before it reached 1,000 views because it violated their “terms of service”, thus discrediting that vital plot-point and scoring a massive own-goal. Laura’s final online message video also only has 1,000 views despite it being about the suicide of a young, conventionally attractive, middle-class white woman. Those low numbers just don’t ring true.
We also have the technical issue of the sound muting on the Skype chat whenever Blaire opens another window around 80% of the time. Not only is it very distracting, not technically accurate and inconsistent but it didn’t even need to be done. Audience members can multi-task when watching something on a movie screen. We’re not THAT stupid.
It also gets unintentionally funny when Blaire is privately messaging her boyfriend and after not getting a response after 2 seconds will type “WHERE R U!!!!!????” and such.
Blaire, please. Give him a moment.
Also, I’m aware that this is a MASSIVE nit-pick, but I couldn’t help but laugh at one sequence where Blaire takes around 30 seconds to download a file that’s only 900 kilobytes yet can still maintain a Skype conversation. Then moments later she downloads a file that’s around 1.6 megabytes in an instant. Yes, massive nit-pick but that’s what happens when you take liberties with knowledge that your target audience will be privy to.
We also have an opening 10 minutes that are incredibly awkward and poorly written as there are countless obnoxious fake-outs with one character pretending to do a demon voice, one character saying that they’re “going to hell” and the high school students bringing the weapons that will ultimately kill them to the Skype Chat regardless of how much sense it makes.
Adam and Mitch actually brought a gun and a knife with them respectively and even use them threateningly towards their webcams throughout the movie. I’m not even making that up. We also have a sequence where Blaire goes on ChatRoulette to call for help instead of doing something much smarter, more efficient and effective. a.k.a. literally anything else.
But it gets particularly stupid when one character joins the chat later on in the movie and is in the laundry room for…reasons? The only justification for her being there is that when she kills herself by drinking bleach it’ll have been lazily “set up” by having the bleach in the background…even though she goes offline for a few minutes and the audience could have easily assumed that she walked into another room to get the bleach during that time. Once again filmmakers, the audience are not THAT stupid.
Seriously, you don’t need to set up the supernatural murders of people with ordinary house-hold objects that extensively unless you’re in a ‘Final Destination‘ movie. It’s just really stupid in context and results in a movie that is frequently, unintentionally hilarious.
But it’s never scary. There are a few fun, “Oh Shit!” moments but nothing that elicit scares. The jump-scares are lazy (and in context what causes many of the jumps don’t make any sense), the characters are morons with one character actually taking his laptop WITH HIM out of the room to investigate something just so the audience can see what’s happening and in terms of the gruesome deaths we mainly see the aftermath as we only get a handful of frames of the deaths taking place on screen. The movie also ends with a contrived, lazy jump-scare even though the ending doesn’t remotely call for it.
The movie also doesn’t seem to be very self-aware. It’s super serious and trying to be very dark and make you care about these characters but the fact that you’re viewing the story through someone else’s laptop screen inherently detaches you. This isn’t MY laptop screen. This is the screen of someone who I don’t know and someone who I care even less about the fate of. I’m seeing recognisable apps and websites such as YouTube, Google, Facebook, Skype etc. but iconography doesn’t inherently equal engagement. That engagement SHOULD come from seeing a dramatic arc for at least ONE of these teenage characters but none of them undergo an arc. Instead the situation just escalates, people shout louder at each other and then promptly die when it’s too late for them to gain anything from the lessons Laura Barns’ ghost is trying to teach them. But since the movie doesn’t do that, we essentially have an 80 minute experiment that’s fun but it’s not fun the way the movie THINKS it is. The fact that Laura Barns’ ghost is in Facebook or is counting down during Skype chats is pretty stupid when you think about it but the movie isn’t self-aware enough to make it work or feel credible.
And while the performances are passable for this fare, the actors aren’t playing people or characters. They’re playing stock characters spouting cliché lines and hitting all of the tropes of this genre. This means the actors have nothing to work with and compensate by just shrieking even more at each other. It comes across as trying to act scary by being loud and anyone who knows anything about horror will tell you, that ain’t how it’s done.
‘Unfriended‘ does not work as a horror movie. In fact, it probably devolves more into an unintentional comedy when all is said and done. It’s not scary, the characters are unlikeable and a novel premise was put in the hands of a director, writers and editors that didn’t know what to do with it. But at the same time, there’s something admirable about it. Even if it doesn’t wholly work, it commits to the concept and in the mainstream nothing like this has been done before. It’s also filled with enough standalone moments of ingenuity to prevent it from being completely written off. It’s hard to defend its merits or its execution, but at least I can defend its principals.
I give ‘Unfriended‘ 2 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 3rd Jan 16