Every now and then I weaken and pick up a low-cost DVD on impulse at the checkout, of a film that I’ve never heard of before and know nothing about. Frankly its anonymity is usually a good warning: there are usually reasons why a movie sinks without trace, and that’s certainly the case here.
This is a film you really hope and expect will be better than it actually turns out to be. It’s got a good pedigree, directed by Japanese director Hideo Nakata (who brought us the original “Ring”) and featuring rising star Aaron Johnson (of Kick-Ass and Nowhere Boy) and it has an interesting concept of a sociopath twisting an online social network to their own ends. But frankly it never really gels or takes off.
There’s no trace of Nakata’s trademark “Japan horror” style, and the film is amazingly “English domestic” more in common with naff 90s TV miniseries “KillerNet” than the “Ring” films. Nakata does bring a nice visual flair to the online life which is presented in vivid colours and appealing (and peeling) design, the different chat rooms all having different and equally interesting visual personalities, while “real” life is effectively contrasted in washed out, pale and bleached out drabness. Nakata also brings a good sound design to the film that adds atmosphere that does much to unsettle the viewer.
The performances are good too, especially from rising star of the moment Aaron Johnson who gets to swing from insecure, troubled real persona to swaggering, confident virtual personality, which itself swings from initially charming group leader to gradually revealing his intensively evil impulses – and Johnson does evil well, too. Matthew Beard is very impressive too as the weak link who is deconstructed by Johnson’s character, while Imogen Poots has the most potential as the upper class airhead bitch initially attracted to but then repelled by Johnson. Sadly the other two characters are barely developed and their storylines suddenly peter out as the film loses interest in them (and the audience’s was never really engaged in them in the first place.)
The chatroom concept itself is nicely presented as a real location (bypassing people hammering away at keyboards) but every so often non sequitor dialogue such as “what do you look like?” or “where are you?” between two characters who appear to be sitting side by side remind you of the actual online situation; when characters do assemble in real life there’s a nice touch with one of them having to hold up a chalkboard in the air with their screen name on it so that they can recognise each other. This confusion of virtual life with real life is very much how many people experience it, and technically the film is reasonably realistic too, with nice roles of iPhones and iMacs, good representations of hacking and pedophiles and password protection into the visual representation of the virtual reality. For all that, it’s strange that this VR should be seemingly based on a text-line chat programme like AOL IM which instantly seems dated.
So how come this doesn’t work better? Really it’s because despite the film’s PR marketing and Nakata’s presence at the helm, this is no horror film. The stageplay on which its based is an “issue play” about online bullying which isn’t really as clever, original or interesting as it thinks it is, and it instantly feels like it would be more at home as a storyline in a teen soap instead of a film. The storyline is also disconnected, confusing, unfocussed and lacking subtlety, ending up in a pointless run around chase sequence around north-west London that feels tacked on.
It gets widely differing reviews online, from those thinking it’s underrated and deserves better, to those who want those 94 minutes of their life back. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s dreadful by any means, but it’s far from being one that will make you feel that your world is incomplete if you don’t happen to see it. Its flaws are enough to make the film feel rather laboured when it needs to fly, resulting in an okay watch but nothing special despite its occasional merits.
** out of *****.