Arts & Entertainment, Features

REVIEW: Audiences unfollow clichéd characters of “Unfriended”

“Unfriended,” a story of friends being haunted by an online presence, will be released April 17. PHOTO COURTESY OF UNIVERSAL PICTURES
“Unfriended,” a story of friends being haunted by an online presence, will be released April 17. PHOTO COURTESY OF UNIVERSAL PICTURES

Six teens Skype on screen: brunette Blaire (Shelley Hennig), who enjoys settling arguments; her blue-eyed boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm); seemingly ditsy Jess (Renee Olstead); token hot-head Adam (Will Peltz); chubby Ken (Jacob Wysocki); and Val (Courtney Halverson), who’s the most sadistic but conveniently dies first. Yes, she dies — this is a horror movie of sorts. From there, you know the drill and can probably predict the order in which the rest log off for good.

In theory, the entirely-online angle is a novel one, and it has potential, but the entirely “un-spooky” problem with horror may require more than what Levan Gabriadze’s “Unfriended” has to offer. Like most half-baked films in the genre, this one elicits a callous perspective from the viewer. Because we know our characters will die, pigeonholing them as unlikeable and perhaps even a little deserving of their fate feels natural. After all, we don’t know them, and soon enough no one will.

Some might call it “trashy,” others might call it “a waste of 120 minutes,” but both perspectives target the same issue. “Unfriended,” though intriguing in its video-chat frame, unfortunately lets viewers fall into a state of waiting for each character to die, tossing out the film’s entertainment value along with its “thou shall not cyberbully” moral.

Despite how quickly the on-screen cast comes off as shallow, the story emerges out of a dark situation. A year prior to the movie’s time, a peer of the sextet named Laura Barns killed herself after the online posting of an embarrassing party video. Now, her online accounts have mysteriously reactivated and hacked into the group’s Skype call under the moniker “billie227.” She’s back for redemption and “wants to play a game.” The penalty for hanging up is death. Spooky, right? Somewhat.

The issue with this plot is that it comes with enough humorous opportunities to distract viewers from the stakes at hand. We millennials know we suck and often resort to laughing at what makes that so: our obsessions with social media, our slightly offensive slang, our oversized headphones and – let us not neglect – our neglected apostrophes from Internet-speak. “Unfriended” delivers all of that with a side of unorganized desktop JPEGs, plus a message typed by Blaire that sums up the tale pretty well: “Somethings srsly wrong.” She’s got no time for vowels, and we’re left chucking instead of pondering.

This humor by way of stereotypes combines with the dull time between deaths to create a flick that both bores and makes fun of itself. The one-by-one deaths, though brutal and varied, are abrupt and fill the running time with less horror than your traditional fill. It’s not that the film isn’t scary enough. The problem lies in the time we spend waiting, touched by very little suspense. About halfway through, impulses to hit “fast-forward” feel natural, unfortunately inducing indifference and blunting the anti-bullying message.

The dialogue brought on by billie227’s harassment doesn’t up the entertainment value — it’s simply too clichéd. In a deadly game of “Never Have I Ever,” the friends, minus the already dead Val, reveal dirty little secrets as original as the group’s Abercrombie & Fitch aesthetic.

He slept with you? You spread that rumor? I’m heartbroken? Let’s start screaming about last summer, SHALL WE?

Each betrayal has been heard before, if not via film or TV,  then instead via your high school’s own version of this doomed collective. The arguments, which seemingly break the characters down and echo the immaturity that got them into this mess, come off as petty and anything but intense from the audience’s perspective. Even backstories that come off as the film’s most obvious attempt at character development fall flat. Again, why bother with their sex lives when they’re all just waiting to die? (Too callous?)

With that said, the visual setup is commendably realistic. Told from the view of Blaire’s desktop, the film is artistic in that it forces us to get added screen time in a cinematic context. Characters only speak while on screen, leaving the rest up to a cursor. Clicks and typing sounds replace internal dialogue as the various “bloops” of notifications make you jolt from time to time. This setup by no means saves the flick from being detached, but it’s certainly a creative and original idea.

When Blaire goes to open a mysterious image sent from billie227’s account, perhaps the most important horror flick feeling is missing: that of “Don’t go in there! You’ll get a virus!” Even mid-scare, the adrenaline appears to run on empty.

Despite its best efforts to relate, “Unfriended” drags as a horror flick without much substance beyond its modern-day appearance. Sure, the web is a spooky place, but without suspense or any real characterization, it just becomes a screen. As for the cast’s Skype call of doom, their fates are nothing to scream about. They’re something to shrug at.

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