What I'm Watching: Unfriended
I meant to get to this a lot sooner so it was A) more back to back with Open Windows and B) fresher in my memory. The worst thing about seeing movies in theatre is that if I want to write about them immediately, I can't *easily* rewatch them, at least not in a timely manner.
The plot here is pretty standard, where someone died a year ago, and a small group of her friends and schoolmates start to have weird things happen, and start dying off. It's the typical "I Know What You Did Last Summer" idea of secrets coming back to bite people. Bite them and kill them.
The difference here is, that it all plays out on a computer screen, just like Open Windows. And much like Open Windows, they're still experimenting with this new form of storytelling.
The biggest difference here is, Unfriended is far, FAR more successful at the experiment than Open Windows was. The biggest difference is that Unfriended actually uses a recognisable computer OS, programs, and sounds, whereas Open Windows was all made up and got rather BSish in their technology.
The greatest strength of this storytelling device is the familiarity it SHOULD create. You should be staring at the screen and going, "That could be MY computer". All good horror puts you in the shoes of the people involved, and Open Windows never came anywhere close to that. Which is a budgetary concern. A small movie is never gonna get Apple, Skype, and everyone else needed to sign off or whatever they need to do. A larger, studio backed production, can pull that off, and it helps a LOT.
The other big difference is that Unfriended never feels as cluttered as Open Windows. Sure, there's still a lot going on, but rather than spreading everything out in smaller windows, and giving every piece of information it's own ongoing space on screen, Unfriended once again goes a more natural route and layers things, like a normal person does, and then shifts focus between *ahem* the open windows. You never zoom into a single screen so it dominates everything, or pan around the screen. Unfriended's computer screen is always full screen, and they instead tab between pertinent windows within the desktop, often times with any other important information, like incoming texts from the killer, being displayed in another window behind what you're reading, but always easily visible. And given the appropriate and familiar sound cues.
I never, ever felt lost or overwhelmed with the information the movies was throwing at me, as it very seamlessly and naturally fed you the story.
But, this does lead towards one complaint I have with the movie; MAN is there a lot of reading to do. A lot of the story happens behind the video chats the kids are having, as they try and figure out who this strange addition in their video chat group is, and discuss it in IMs behind the main window, and post to Facebook, and such.
It's perfectly natural to do that, and anyone who's been in a chat (text or video) with a group of people, ALWAYS has those private conversations in the background. But trying to read all that stuff was not exactly fun or easy, but this will vary for everyone, and is just especially difficult for me because of poor vision. I managed, but it did make things less fun. But that's *my* fault, not the movie's. But I'm sure there's people who won't like it for their own reasons.
In almost every regard of using this particular storytelling gimmick, Unfriended is more successful than Open Windows. They get everything right, and create a much better sense of verisimilitude than the other movie. I can only imagine how amazing this will be too watch on your Apple laptop at home, going fullscreen, and having a near duplicate of the desktop running and playing out this story.
Now, if you're not willing to buy into the plot gimmick, and sit through a movie where you are basically staring at someone's computer screen for 80 minutes, then yeah, you're going to have problems. But you can say that about any movie. If you don't buy into someone who can shoot lasers from his eyes, you're gonna hate X-Men. If you don't buy into spaceships and laser swords, you're gonna hate Star Wars.
Oh, and that's another thing; the runtime. 80 minutes is spot on perfect for this story. It does NOT overstay it's welcome. It does its thing, it tells its story, and gets out. It doesn't drag on for nearly two hours, with endless twists, trying to impress you with how clever it is.
The cast is *generally* likable, as Shelley Hennig almost always is, and the rest aren't bad. Pretty typical teenagers, ranging from annoying to quiet, to troubled. They couldn't really get TOO in depth into their characters with this type of storytelling device, but you get enough of a feel for them to recognise their basic traits. It's sometimes questionable why these people are friends though, but that's nothing atypical of high school horror.
I found myself really enjoying Unfriended, despite myself. I was all ready to hate it, after Open Windows, and still not thinking this gimmick is ready for a real story. I still have my doubts about the longevity of the computer screen movie, but this one got a LOT right, if you're going to tell a story this way.
There's not a lot of new ideas here, but the scares are good, I loved the use of technology, and having this supernatural force using phones and printers and messages to mess with the kids worked on most levels. It takes some familiar sorts of scares and finds some new ways to use them via tech. I also enjoyed the whole revealing of secrets section for the third act. It was a good way to peel back the veil of the mystery at the core of the plot, as well as ramping up the tension, making things get more serious and dangerous, as things finally came out in the open.
The plot is pretty predictable if you've seen a few of the "we did something bad last year and secrets are coming out" movies, but I do like that this was a supernatural take on it, rather than the usual "someone saw us doing it" or "it's a family member we didn't know about". It lets them break the rules of technology a lot easier and lets me not spend almost the entirety of the movie yelling, "COME ON THAT'S NOT HOW A COMPUTER WORKS!" like I would if it was a real person trying to do this stuff.
The single most effective scare for me, and I give the movie huge points for this, is the very final scare. It makes the use of a computer screen to tell the story totally justified in my view, and was a great use AND breaking of this new trope. You spend this entire movie watching the screen of Shelley's character, Blair, putting you in Blair's shoes as she goes through this experience, and eventually, as the movie's plot and secrets are revealed, and the supernatural force comes for Blair, it SLAMS down the laptop screen, and you're staring into Blair's room, and are attacked, first person style, as the movie ends.
That is such a brilliant and perfect use of the computer screen, and I loved how well it flowed from drawing you in to this familiar setting, got you used to it, and then broke the rules without REALLY breaking them, because doing that makes PERFECT sense if you were REALLY Shelley looking at her computer, and is such a great moment.
Really, the biggest problems of the movie are trying to get you to buy into and wanting to sit there and stare at what is essentially a laptop screen for 80 minutes. I went to the theatre of my own free will, so I was down for that. Also, the movie is *very* familiar, telling a familiar story, but at least trying to do it in an interesting way. And I actually think telling a familiar story WORKS for this movie. You're not sitting there trying to wrap your head around this new idea and story, you're trying to experience something familiar in a new way. It lets you wallow in the tropes of the genre, but gives them to you in different ways, and that's probably more of a plus, at least as far as storytelling goes. Open Windows tries to be experimental in its storytelling AND plot, and ended up failing at both.
Overall, it's worth watching for the experience, way moreso than Open Windows, but because this is a story we've all seen and can probably figure out immediately, and because of the static 'setting' for the film, it's not gonna be a high recommendation, because I know a lot of people won't enjoy it. I had fun with it, even though it's really not much above average. It's an experience worth having, more than a story worth telling. I do genuinely look forward to watching it again when it gets its home video release.