No film in theaters today is more of its time than Unfriended: Dark Web. In the Internet Age (at this point we may as well move into a new age, given how different the internet is in 2018 compared to 1991), a constant influx of computerized content is the norm. We live, breathe, and are governed on the internet.
But Dark Web, the sequel to Leo Gabriadze’s 2014 low-budget horror hit, is not so much concerned with the very real corruption that breeds on the internet. Instead, it focuses its attention on a hair-brained, zany scheme that ratchets up to crazy and improbable proportions.
We enter the film through the new laptop of Matias O’Brien. He claims to have bought the thing on Craigslist (but who’s going to buy that a valid purchase occurred through Craigslist in the year 2018?). With the innocuous chime of a Mac booting up, we see the computer’s login screen. The name associated with the account is simply “?”, and Matias initially struggles to crack the password. It is, simply enough, “?”.
Pretty quickly, the laptop interrogates Matias with Facebook messages linked to the old user’s account: Norah C. IV. He ignores the messages, and logs into his account instead (still gets messages from the other account, though, which is strange).
Matias’ immediate goal is to impress his deaf girlfriend Amaya DeSoto (Stephanie Nogueras) with the app that he has in alpha, Papaya, which takes speech and translates it into video sign language. We know right off the bat that it is a foolish tool, given that Amaya can read lips and it is really Matias who needs to better understand their conversations. But he is slow on the uptake.
No surprise then that Amaya is frustrated with Matias. She gives him the cold shoulder, and Matias is forced to move on to the main event of the evening: game night! Only, this game night is going to happen over Skype.
He plays Cards Against Humanity for about 30 seconds with his pals: newly engaged Nari (Betty Gabriel) and Serena (Rebecca Rittenhouse), British tech wizard Damon (Andrew Lees), apparently-off-the-grid-yet-still-somehow-online conspiracy theorist AJ (Connor Del Rio), and Lexx (Savira Windyani) (she isn’t given any prominent attributes).
Then, he starts receiving strange messages from the apparent owner of the laptop, who claims the computer was stolen. During the process of responding to this series of messages, Matias stumbles upon a series of video files and an entryway into a Tor-like server called “The River.”
From here, things go south. Fast. If 2018 has proven anything, it is that game nights never end how you expect them to, and they should just be avoided in the first place.
What Dark Web has going for it is that it is a sequel to Unfriended, a film that laughably barrels its way through teen internet culture without knowing the first thing about teens or the internet. By comparison, Dark Web is a thrilling film. But if it were the first in a franchise and not the second—it is, after all, a completely insular film with no connection to Unfriended—it would come off as deliriously illogical.
Sure, there are clever bits here and there. Set pieces that show a surprising amount of restraint when it comes to on-screen deaths, particularly given the abundance of torture porn imagery that is shown in the film’s trailer (an aspect that is, more than anything else, window dressing for the plot).
But when it becomes clear what is going on with the users of “The River,” all sense of plausibility breaks down. Not only do aspects of their plan seem impossible, but the plan itself does not appear to help them in any way. It is almost as if they are sabotaging themselves in order to make this movie have the guise of a compelling narrative…
More importantly, Unfriended: Dark Web does not instill fear over technology. It does not make us tremble and gasp at the horrors that are happening under our noses. No, the plot of the film is a silly game of smoke and mirrors, leading us down a path and then attempting to pull the rug out from under us.
But in the end writer-director Stephen Susco is just tugging at the rug, which remains unmoving under our feet, while we look on quizzically, wondering why hooded figures in an online snuff film cult are scarier than the real-world specters that work freely on the internet every day. Dark Web not only blows out of proportion the notion of post-2016 technophobia, but it also blows right past it in favor of antics reminiscent of the gawd-awful Smiley.
This is not to say that Dark Web is a gawd-awful film. If anything, there is a grimy tension that comes with the ugly Skype closeups and constant barrage of on-screen text. That this tension is not wasted on cheap scares like in the first film is a commendable attribute.
But ultimately Susco misunderstands what makes the Internet Age scary. It isn’t the same-old, obscured-face killer that knows where you are and how to get you. It is something more existential. Something that doesn’t easily code into conventional horror trappings. It is what we cannot stop, even if we wanted to. And on the internet, that “it” is us.
Unfriended: Dark Web: C+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)