This article contains spoilers for Unfriended.
“One for Unfriended.”
“How old are you?”
The movie screen captivated the first half of the 20th century, and the TV screen the second, and in 2015 the computer is about to dance on their graves. Just wait until the iPad-toting babies have college degrees.
Unfriended starts with a desktop and a cursor opening a YouTube video in which several people stand around watching and filming a young girl (Laura) as she shoots herself. The text associated with the video links to another video which shows Laura at a beach party, drunk and belligerent. This second video and comments associated with it are what pressured Laura into taking her life.
The film, captured in real time, takes place on the first anniversary of her death. And, as the departed’s five former best friends and tormentors gather on Skype, one by one she exacts her revenge. Activating her Skype and Facebook accounts from beyond the grave, Laura threatens the onscreen representations of her enemies.
Unfriended is not a great movie. The scares are predictable and the gore is lame, but it is unlike anything I have ever witnessed. Gimmick or not, having a movie shot all on the computer screen is of huge cinematic significance that redefines the way an audience understands its participation in entertainment. All praise be unto the gimmick.
What are we thinking?
If you’re watching a movie with a voiceover, that’s not a good sign. Whether it’s the overexplanation of Platoon or the meta criticism of Adaptation, voiceover hasn’t been cool in a while. Unfriended tries an entirely new tactic of getting inside the mind of the protagonist.
Having so much of the film written and read makes the audience brutally aware of its participation in entertainment.
Blaire Lily, the girl with the computer screen, is our protagonist. While she maintains a conversation with a group of friends on Skype, she also chats with her boyfriend, Mitch, in another window, highlighting the way we use our ever accessible online persona to hide from what we really think.
Blaire confesses to Mitch what she would never say to her other friends. More than that we, as the audience, are privy to her innermost thoughts—everything she types and deletes before sending to Mitch or posting on the ghost’s Facebook profile. She types and deletes and types and deletes, reminding us of the luxury of text. Having the time to think through and filter what we say, away from the traps of awkward silence and body language, allows us to put forward what is, if not our best self, at least our desired expression of ourselves.
Having so much of the film written and read makes the audience brutally aware of its participation in entertainment. Watching is passive and escapist. Even the most complex psychological thrill ride lets you turn off your life, your brain, and transports you into another world. This is why a lot of people don’t like foreign films. To get what’s happening in the movie, you have to read. To read, you have to engage. To engage is to be aware of your participation in the experience.
What are we running from?
Unfriended was originally called Cybernatural, and while it doesn’t have the same marketing ring to it, it’s a more descriptive title. The embarrassing video of drunk Laura culminates in her passed out with shit dripping out of her shorts and down her legs.
Digestion is the great leveler. The stinky, messy biological shame is common not just to all humans but to all animals. No one wants to talk about it or be associated with it, but everyone does it.
We craft our disembodied online existence so we can be rid of all the gross business associated with living in meatspace. The ghost’s early shenanigans consist of posting unwanted photos from various accounts. One photo of drug use elicits the response “a bong? I’m friends with my mom!”
We’re again confronted with our desire to for two separate selves when the ghost steals an image of Blaire stripping from her boyfriend and adds a link for “free live cams.” It is something Blaire wanted to share with Mitch, not the whole world, but because she communicates with Mitch through the representation she shows to the whole world—and he similarly with her—they don’t really connect. The young couple tries to use technology for biological ends, but it is appropriated by the technological community of avatars and data.
Who are we?
We all want to be something we’re not. Teenagers often want to be stronger and more influential than they are. The pre-suicide fallout from the drunk video was mainly comments from classmates like “kill urself.”
There is a disconnect between the comment and the commenter, between the girl in the video and the girl passed out of the beach. Other minor characters agree that inflammatory things don’t count online. On Chatroulette a white user refers to himself as “n***a.” Our profiles are how we present ourselves, how we want to be. Black instead of white, confident bitch instead of scared teenager.
Laura’s ghost exacts revenge by possessing her victims and forcing them to take their own lives, like they (in her mind) made her do.
A ghost is an impression of the past. What is left online for Laura is two devastating videos of her weakest moments. Now that she is gone, the videos are all that are left of her, and she wants to punish those responsible. She doesn’t only punish them by forcing their demise, but by revealing their cruelty online.
The last moments of Blaire’s life consist of her seeing a slew of Internet messages urging her to kill herself for what she did to Laura. So, while one interpretation of events is that a ghost possessed their bodies, the cops will probably come to the conclusion that, racked with guilt, they all chose to commit suicide.
What is left online for Laura is two devastating videos of her weakest moments
One of the ghost’s persistent threats is that if they hang up on the conversation, they will die. In many ways, it is right: The separation between online and biological life is false. What you do in either place infects the other. To hang up on your Internet self is to end your existence.
What really scares us?
The ghost first presents itself as an anonymous participant in the Skype group. Then, all of a sudden, it types, making itself both real and frightening. Relying on technology as we do, we’re afraid when it doesn’t work as it should. Since we think of it as “our” platform, it is disturbing when it doesn’t do as told.
The gore in Unfriended is punctuated with spinning wheels, frozen screens, and buffering, because nothing is scarier than your computer not working. When disturbing messages start coming from Facebook, Blaire tries to unfriend the late Laura but cannot. As she says to Mitch “like, it won’t click.” The same thing happens when the friends find it’s impossible to leave Skype because “There’s no button to hang up on.”
Taking after the hyperbolic “blue screen of death” familiar to Windows users, the ghost attacks its victims by limiting their power over their devices. Absence of access is lack of life.
As the credits rolled and I made notes on my iPad, a man exiting the row in front of me turned around and said “better close that computer before she come out and getcha.” Because Unfriended uses innovative tactics to engage the audience in the experience of viewership, the movie reminded him of the dangers of relying too much on representation and failing to properly live biological life.
So close your computer. It’s springtime.
Photo via Andy Melton/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed