Unfriended: Dark Web
Employing the same style as its better than expected predecessor but telling a different type of story, Unfriended: Dark Web is an uneven, unconnected sequel that still makes decent use of its high concept hook. The novelty of watching a film unfolding entirely within the windows open on someone’s desktop computer has passed, and while writer and first time director Stephen Susco (Texas Chainsaw 3D, the Grudge remakes) has found a way to adapt the concept to fit something more viscerally scary than supernaturally ghoulish, Unfriended: Dark Web ultimately feels like a long walk for a minimal payoff.
Instead of focusing on a bunch of teens stalked by the dark spirit of a former classmate from beyond the grave, Unfriended: Dark Web focuses on a bunch of twenty-somethings Skyping together for a group game night. The main focus is on Mathias (Colin Woodell) who recently “bought” a new laptop to help work on a new text/voice to ASL app that will help him communicate better with his deaf girlfriend (Stephanie Nogueras). After a fight with his girlfriend and some light bantering with his five online buddies, Matthias notices that the hard drive on his “new” laptop is crammed with mysterious files in a hidden folder. The laptop’s original owner contacts Matthias out of the blue and demands that the computer be returned, or his girlfriend and friends will all be in grave danger.
Unfriended: Dark Web trades a supernatural plotline for something a lot more conspiratorial involving underground black market trading of dirty deeds. The switch from ghosts and ghouls to deadly and deceptive human beings is a nice touch, but everything else about Unfriended: Dark Web feels recycled and downgraded from its clever predecessor.
The friends are a mish-mash of clichés. There’s the annoying, loudmouthed conspiracy theorist (Connor Del Rio), a helpfully nerdy British guy (Andrew Lees), a recently engaged lesbian couple (Betty Gabriel and Chelsea Alden), and an Asian DJ (Savira Windyani). The villains, who annoyingly pop up on camera as pixilated blurs most of the time, admonish Mathias to never contact the police or tip off his buddies that anything is wrong. We’ll watch as the hero multitasks between Skype, Facebook messenger, and various websites to try and save his friends and unravel the conspiracy he’s unwittingly become caught up in. And once again, the main character has done a bad thing that has worse consequences than he could have ever imagined.
Unfriended: Dark Web looks and moves exactly like its predecessor without tinkering with the desktop based formula. While there are some clever touches (especially a final act wrinkle for the villains caused by dodgy subway Wi-Fi), a lot of this feels rather familiar, suggesting that the first film was a once in a lifetime sort of gambit that wouldn’t lend itself well to sequels. Although the creators of the original film collaborated on this one, it feels more like Susco simply studied the original, noted what worked, and then didn’t bother changing the style to fit his admittedly different substance. (It should also be noted that this sequel is produced by gonzo Russian auteur Timur Bekmambetov, who has another desktop based thriller, Searching, releasing in theatres next week, suggesting that he might be a bigger driving force here than the director.) The thrill of darting one’s eyes around a computer for clues as to what might be happening next has passed, and the novelty has considerably worn off.
There’s also a lot more set-up to the deadly game at the heart of Unfriended: Dark Web. Approximately an hour of the film finds Matthias sweating his situation and the villains constantly telling the hero that they’ll hurt everyone he loves if he spills the beans. When the violence finally arrives (rather late in the film by horror standards), it’s largely bloodless and unexceptional, and it devolves into one of those films where all the characters shout each others’ names, begging them to turn around or to not answer the phone or door. The first film handled these clichés well because the concept was still fresh and original. Even though the switch in baddies is more based in real world fears than its predecessor, Unfriended: Dark Web still feels like a film that’s going through the same supernatural motions and contrivances. It’s firmly designed to spook internet addled fourteen year olds, not a wider audience.
The characters are all thinly developed, but some of them are likable, most notably Gabriel and Lees. Woodell has to do most of the heavy lifting here, reacting, overreacting, and darting around the frame like a chicken with his head cut off (minus being able to run anywhere), and the story mostly focuses on his troubles. It’s so resolutely focused on Matthias’ search for the truth that it becomes apparent that this thread would work much better as short than it does as a feature, and that it would also work better without any of the supporting characters on hand as cannon fodder. There’s an excellent twenty minute short here, but it’s rather tiresome when dragged out to nearly ninety minutes that feel a lot longer than they actually are.
Still, it’s not a terrible film by any stretch. There’s still some excitement and cheap thrills to be had. It’s better than any number of slasher movie knock-offs and remakes out there. If you’re in the mood for a slightly spooky thriller, Unfriended: Dark Web isn’t a bad choice. You just might want to wait until you’re home and watching it on your own computer to see it.
Also, it has been made apparent in recent days that Unfriended: Dark Web is being released to theatres with two different endings, and there’s no way to tell which one you’ll be getting once you get to the cinema. The press screening I attended only showcased one ending, and I’m really not sure how different the alternate one would be. You’d really have to change the last thirty minutes of the film for a different ending to have any impact. So if you were curious, take that for whatever it’s worth.
Unfriended: Dark Web opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, July 20, 2018.
Check out the trailer for Unfriended: Dark Web: