The revolution in gaming and computing has affected cinema in many ways, from narrative formats and editing styles to the threat (real or exaggerated) posed to the industry by illegal downloading. One problem rarely discussed, though, is how to represent on film the uncinematic activity that consumes so much of modern life and leisure. Just as no television show before The Royle Family acknowledged that ordinary people watch TV, so movies have largely shied away from putting the common computer at the centre of the action. Small wonder, when the naff attempts to visualise online space in the WikiLeaks drama The Fifth Estate and the thriller Chatroom were enough to make Pac-Man cringe.
An on-screen Twitter feed was integral to the 2014 comedy Frank, starring Michael Fassbender. But cinema has found its Royle Family moment only now in the horror movie Unfriended, in which the action is confined to an 80-minute Skype conversation between six people. Or rather, five people and an “it”. Blaire (Shelley Hennig), a Californian teenager, knows all but one of her fellow callers. When the faceless contributor identifies herself as Laura Barns, a chill descends. Laura committed suicide a year earlier after a demeaning video of her was posted on YouTube. There’s nothing in Skype’s terms and conditions about blocking ghosts.
Numerous screens and tabs are opened by Blaire within the group call – we see Spotify, YouTube and Facebook, as well as private messages that provide a running commentary on the Skype chat. There are also ads and videos visible (“Depressed?” “Cat Does Backflip – Amazing!”). But we never leave the borders of her laptop; the disembodied, gloved-hand cursor floats eerily over the screen at all times.
In all the excitement about technology, the writers haven’t properly worked out the plot, which relies on people getting pressured into committing suicide at a moment’s notice. At least the old conventions have been updated. We’ve seen too many Friday the 13th films to buy the sight of teenagers venturing into the deep, dark forest, but the deep, dark internet is another matter. When trouble looms, these teenagers can’t alert passing motorists like in horror films of the past. They try to flag down strangers instead on the sleazy webcam lottery of Chatroulette.
Being up to date is not the same thing as being on the ball, and Unfriended could afford to be cleverer. It has a good line in making the ordinary sinister: the burbling beeps that announce an incoming Skype or the visual shock when the image pixelates grotesquely. But any film that relies too much on technology is ruling out its own longevity. Unfriended will look like a period piece a year from now when Facebook and all the other sites have undergone multiple refurbishment. I can just hear cinemagoers of the future saying, “That’s, like, so 2015.”