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The Social Network (12A)

Ryan Gilbey delves into the dark history of Facebook.

The Social Network (12A)
dir: David Fincher

David Fincher has made a pretty penny from showing the ugly side of life. Both of his most arresting films to date, Seven and Zodiac, concerned serial killers and now, unexpectedly, he brings his love of the sinister to a story of Harvard computer nerds. In The Social Network, the university campus is shrouded in nightfall. Figures steal through the maze of intersecting paths towards the sanctuary of private rooms, although privacy, as the film will demonstrate, is illusory. Islands of mist hang eerily over the Charles River. The score, by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, is an exercise in electronic Gothic, mixing industrial drones and sinister rumbles, distant alarms and a faint buzzing that suggests the sound of something, or someone, short-circuiting. A sorrowful piano motif glistens on the surface like ice on a bottomless lagoon.

The mood is fit for cold war espionage or the reanimation of Frankenstein's monster, but the truth lies somewhere in between. The Social Network documents the birth of Facebook, the website that allows its 500 million-and-counting users to rifle through their friends' photo albums and to "poke" one another, all without incurring the bothersome restraining orders that once accompanied such pursuits.

It's a supreme joke that this idea, which has redefined communication in the 21st century, should come from two 19-year-old undergrads who, in the film, exhibit the social skills of a mouse-pad and all the popularity of a computer virus. In 2004, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Eduardo Savarin (Andrew Garfield) create a networking site, Thefacebook, accessible to their fellow Harvard students. Zuckerberg has primly pursed lips, crushed ginger curls and a face as pale as spooked milk. When he talks, he sounds like the speaking clock having a panic attack. Ninety per cent of what he says indicates that he regards you as privileged to live in his world; the remaining 10 per cent only seems that way. Eduardo is taller and better looking, but his handsomeness is undercut by an earnest expression that's on the verge of crumpling with joy or distress. They are an odd match: an iceberg and a teddy bear.

Aaron Sorkin's screenplay, based on Ben Mezrich's book The Accidental Billionaires, begins just before Thefacebook's inception. Zuckerberg, in a fit of pique after being jilted by his girlfriend, launches Facemash, a rudimentary site inviting users to rate the relative attractiveness of pairs of female students. By taking this as the starting point, Sorkin suggests that Facebook has its roots in rancour and misogyny and privacy violations of the kind that so often feature in headlines today. Fincher responds by positioning the camera at a high vantage point for an ominous surveillance shot that tracks Zuckerberg as he threads his way towards campus.

No sooner does Thefacebook take off than the movie scuppers any celebratory air by cutting to the multimillion-dollar lawsuits in which Zuckerberg becomes entangled once the site grows into a fully fledged phenomenon. The flash-forward, like its more promiscuous sibling the flashback, is a powerful storytelling tool that takes predestination for granted. By disrupting the chronology, and incorporating Zuckerberg's future woes into the present, the script makes it seem as though it was inevitable that he would become mired in disputes and recriminations. We see him sued by the strapping Winklevoss twins (both played by one actor, Armie Hammer), who had hired him to mastermind a Harvard dating site, and also by Eduardo. Zuckerberg isn't given any salad days to savour; even an encounter in a toilet stall with an obliging "groupie" is shot in sickly, monster-movie green. It's as if the film-makers wanted to hit him with an almighty hangover before he'd had a chance to knock back a shot.

The first half of The Social Network is illuminated by the dim light of student bars and the faithful glow of desktop lamps and PC screens. A new morning is announced when Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), founder of the music file-sharing site Napster, comes on board. It is Parker who suggests dropping the definite article from Thefacebook, and who hints at dropping Eduardo, too. Suddenly there is sunshine, and even the occasional exterior scene, although Zuckerberg is always shown to be comically out of step with the world that he is busily reshaping. In the Harvard snow, he is out in shorts and flip-flops. For a business meeting, he wears pyjamas and a dressing gown. During a sombre showdown with Eduardo, he brandishes a red liquorice stick that resembles the fuse on a cartoon stick of dynamite.

Younger audiences that have grown up with Facebook as the furniture of their lives may detect some squeamishness about the site on the part of the film-makers. A minor plot-point involving a caged chicken that is fed the meat of its own species provides an insight, as if one were needed, into Sorkin's concerns about the creators and frequenters of Facebook. But it would be doing this complex and elegantly constructed picture a disservice to suggest that any one aspect is predominant. The Social Network contains elements of screwball comedy, courtroom drama and class satire; it also touches on tragedy, asking what Zuckerberg might have forsaken on his way to world domination. Eisenberg's rigorously controlled performance leaves the validity of the very question ambiguous, rendering the character both legible and remote.

Parker argues in the film that losing in court to the record companies was irrelevant because Napster achieved victory by transforming the music industry for ever. Fincher makes a similar point on behalf of Facebook, and does so with a thrilling and understated visual touch. The last scene of the film shows Zuckerberg sitting in his lawyer's office with only his laptop for company. The evening sky is visible through the window, but it's a blue night, you realise, rather than a black one. And not just any old blue. It's cobalt blue. No - it's Facebook blue.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 18 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns Britain?