NEW MOVIES: In cyberspace no one can hear you meme
Films zoom in on the ubiquity of social media, exploring the dangers of our frenetic interconnected world
A movie about social media has just hit cinema screens. To the surprise of almost nobody, it is a horror film. Unfriended: Dark Web tells the story of Matias, a teenager who steals a laptop from a cyber café’s lost property bin and then finds himself terrorised online by the mystery owner, who turns out to be a denizen of the so-called “dark web”.
Like its predecessor, Unfriended, which was released in 2014, the film takes place exclusively on laptop screens; all the other characters – Matias’s girlfriend, his friends – appear in windows that pop up on his screen when they talk via Skype.
But Unfriended 2 differs from the original in one crucial way: whereas the first film was about a suicide victim whose ghost comes back to haunt a chat room inhabited by those who had bullied her at school, the sequel has ditched the supernatural element. The message is clear: there are more than enough real things to be scared about when it comes to social media, without reaching out from beyond the grave.Unfriended: Dark Web is one of three forthcoming films unashamedly looking to exploit our fears of the modern, interconnected world. Searching, due for release this month, stars John Cho as a desperate father contacting his daughter’s classmates online to help solve her disappearance, while Profile, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, tells the story of a British journalist who poses as a Muslim to investigate the secret underworld of jihadi war brides.
Like Unfriended, all the action in Searching and Profile takes place on screens – they don’t subscribe to any notion that training our eyes on browser windows is monotonous (and, certainly, the first Unfriended was very effective at keeping its viewers gripped).
Of course, it would be strange if Hollywood wasn’t making films about social media, given the incessant role it plays in our day-to-day lives. But what is notable is the negative light in which it depicts the phenomenon.
Right from the off, Hollywood seemed to have it in for the Internet. Remember The Net (1995), in which Sandra Bullock’s identity was stolen by hackers, and there was no one left in the real world to back her up?But the first film about social media, specifically, was David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010), a huge hit that avidly explored not just the narcissism and isolation of Mark Zuckerberg, but the potential of Facebook to turn us all into him. Trading off an instant-classic tagline – “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies” – the film lured in a savvy audience with the prickly sensation of watching a phenomenon rise, then fed us the sour tang of sabotage and betrayal. It is telling that Fincher was and remains a social media refusenik.
Since The Social Network, other films have explored the way in which social media can toy with people’s emotions. The 2010 documentary Catfish was a fascinating chronicle by a young New York photographer of a relationship he had on Facebook with a woman who turned out to be very different from her online profile. (The film made such an impact that the term “catfishing” – fabricating an identity online to trick people into a romantic relationship – has become part of modern parlance.)Trust, meanwhile, a drama released in the same year and starring Clive Owen and Catherine Keener, tackled the far more troubling way in which online anonymity allows sexual predators to groom children.The irony, though, is that by plumping for a tone of doomy didacticism, filmmakers too often overplay their hand.
The thriller Disconnect (2012), starring Jason Bateman, juggled interconnecting stories about an underage chat-room stripper, a schoolboy tricked into sending a nude selfie that was then passed around, and a couple whose identities were stolen online. It’s not that pernicious abuses like this aren’t common, but knitting them all into one script made it feel like a distorted grab-bag of issues; more of a lecture than a movie.
Meanwhile, Jason Reitman’s cringily on-the-nose comedy-drama Men, Women & Children (2014), was more intent on proving a thesis – that online addiction turns us into robots – than it was on making an engaging drama. Jennifer Garner’s character joylessly policed her daughter’s Facebook account all day, while another mum, played by Judy Greer, pimped hers out for fame with indecent photographs. It is difficult to persuade people of the dehumanising effects of social media if your characters don’t seem human in the first place.What’s more, such films ignore how cunningly implanted the pitfalls are – as the Cambridge Analytica data-mining scandal earlier this year revealed – and they have a moralistic habit of blaming the users of the technology rather than the technology itself. After all, Sean Parker, a founding president of Facebook, has claimed that the site was deliberately made to be addictive and to exploit “a vulnerability in human psychology”. So do any films get it right?
Perhaps the best depiction of the perils of social media was last year’s Ingrid Goes West. Starring Aubrey Plaza as a smartphone addict who stalks an Instagram celebrity (Elizabeth Olsen), it was essentially an update of The Talented Mr Ripley for the like-me-like-me age, with Olsen in the Jude Law role. With its up-to-the-minute script, it exposed the falsity of connections forged through finger-swipes, and the insecurity underlying everything we post.
Of course, lots of films and TV shows – especially high-school dramas – now integrate social media in their action, without the phenomenon being a core part of the plot. As it’s simply the way in which young people communicate today, it would be strange if characters on screen were not doing the same.Hollywood is also not averse to making jokes at the expense of the older generation struggling to come to terms with their children’s new online world. When the parents of three teenage girls found an open laptop in the comedy Blockers, their efforts to decode their daughters’ emoji (and their eventual realisation that a sex-and-drugs fiesta was being planned) scored some belly laughs. The film lightly mocked the foreign country of social media use for an anxious, untutored older generation.
However, we are still waiting for a truly great film that grasps what has happened to our world since Zuckerberg scrawled those first lines of code at Harvard University – and picks up where the headlines have left off, in showing how his site, and others, have eroded our privacy for profit.
- © The Daily Telegraph