In the same way that Christopher Nolan has been allowed by studios and theater owners to indulge his whim of unspooling his “unrestored” print of 2001: A Space Odyssey across the biggest screens in the country to achieve that film’s maximum visual and sonic impact, it probably would have behooved the filmmakers behind Unfriended: Dark Web to try a similar tactic: Release it as a digital-only exclusive that will only play on the slowest laptops on Earth. I’m sure I’m not the first to make that observation, but it proves difficult — and maybe even unfair — to judge the film outside of what is clearly its natural habitat.
Unfolding in real time across multiple online realities at once, Dark Web is about as solid and entertaining a thriller as we’re likely to get from this new-ish horror subgenre. Most of what the film is attempting pays off, and what little is unresolved by the end is left mostly to how many levels of disbelief the viewer is willing to suspend for the duration of the film. But even so, rarely do those stray threads extend beyond the standard “getting caught was part of the villain’s plan”-style tropes that are in no way exclusive to horror or even to movies. Annoying, yes, but far from distracting, which is something of a miracle in terms of what could have been. I’m even giving the film a pass on the staggering and unrelenting product placement tornado that is the constant parade of corporate logos in the forms of Facebook, Skype, Apple, Cards Against Humanity, etc. Dark Web allows them to create texture and a sense of world-building rather than become the embarrassing eyesore they’d normally be.
The Unfriended series of films (two so far, with undoubtedly more on the way) has taken the smartest and — considering the form and structure — easiest form available and become an anthology franchise. Centered around a game night hangout session wherein the players slowly discover sinister things about their friend’s newly acquired laptop (our primary POV), Dark Web slowly drops its characters deeper into layers of story that I’m frankly surprised to say had me hooked from the start.
As they eventually find themselves in bigger trouble than they ever could have imagined given their circumstances, the film never lets up and only tightens the noose until it reaches a pretty thrilling extended climax. The filmmakers even released two different endings randomly to theaters. Having seen only one of them, it’s easy to guess what the other ending might be, but that doesn’t make it any less funny to me that they followed through on the threatening binary of the film’s final seconds.
The frustrating truth, though, is that this just isn’t the most interesting type of thing to watch on a big screen. While it helps by offering up its own constant distractions — pop-ups opening and closing throughout and the follow-the-bouncing-ball cursor — rather than confuse things by letting audiences click away from it while watching, it ends up being more tedious a viewing experience than its otherwise advanced choose-your-own-adventure story should have allowed for.
Rated R for some disturbing violence, language and sexual references. Now playing at Epic of Hendersonville and Regal Biltmore Grande.