by Jason Suzuki
When films use a facsimile of a computer screen in a 1:1 ratio with the frame of the film, a fascinating new territory of film language opens up (for more on this nonsense, here is a previous essay on the form). Web browser tabs are used for character backstory as can desktop wallpapers and folder/document names. Watching someone type and rewrite IMs or emails can be just as telling as when voice is used. There's potential here within what is arguably the most ubiquitous POV of today. Friend Request, the latest cyber-themed horror film, does not surpass the high bar set by the likes of Unfriended, it barely takes place on the place computer screen, but it does bring up interesting questions of the versatility of such a formal choice and features one of the more interesting metaphors for how we use our devices.
We are introduced to Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey) through her Facebook friend count. A montage where we jump from post to post, each photo is brought to life with the actual, in motion event, does little more than to establish her closest circle of friends and that she is an average, active girl. Exercise, outdoor ventures, travel, sunshine, lots of smiles. She doesn't exactly fit into the popular girl character type but she is pretty and has a core group of friends (including boyfriend and other guy who wants to be the boyfriend). Essentially she is the opposite of Marina (Liesl Ahlers), who is dark, brooding, and with zero friends online or otherwise.
Feeling sorry for Marina, Laura decides to accept her friend request, but when Marina becomes too clingy, Laura starts to back away. Her fate is sealed when she lies to Marina about not having a birthday party, something Marina finds out about thanks to Laura's friends and their art of tagging. Marina hangs herself while on fire in front of her laptop, sending it to Laura. From here all sorts of kooky stuff happens to Laura and her friends, all computer related and leading back to Marina.
Further details of the story are not important as one scene in particular, early on in the film, is worth exploring: the moment after Marina confronts Laura about lying to her. She blows up at Laura in the school dining hall (in front of everyone for maximum embarrassment) and before you know it, Laura is back in her apartment, hovering over the unfriend button. The shot structure of this scene is the following: outside computer shot of Laura at her laptop, her friends hovering over her, telling her to distance herself from Marina; facsimile of Laura's computer screen where she goes on Marina's page (she uses Ma Rina), she scrolls through some of her posts which at first she finds disturbing and later will find are references to the Marina's history of abuse, and finally she clicks on the unfriend option, it asks her to confirm the unfriending, the pointer hovers over the YES button; then we cut to a close-up of Laura's fingers defiantly hitting the touchpad of her laptop.
The question this brings up is what changes if the film didn't choose to cut to the shot of her finger clicking the yes button and thus breaking the shot of her POV with her computer screen? Would dramatic impact increase of lessen with either option? How would it be different if instead of either option the film cuts to a close-up of Laura's eyes, the screen reflected in her eyes, and we instead hear the click of the mouse? Or maintain the focus on the computer screen but the moment before she clicks insert her reflection onto the screen ala Nerve, keeping both worlds in the same shot. There's a lot of interesting formal decisions to be made here, but unfortunately the film is not as interested in exploring this form. Totally fine, but the promise of Unfriended is not being further explored by other films yet.
What the film does well is its use of the black mirror metaphor in relation to contemporary use of technology. When Marina performs her ritual in front of her computer, she is trapping her soul within the reflection of the laptop screen. Simon Verhoeven (no relation to Paul) and cinematographer Jo Heim carefully use frozen reflections on computer and phone screens to foreshadow a character's imminent demise. Reflections on these electronic screen surfaces are used throughout the film, suggesting that their usage is not for connection seeking but for navel-gazing and narcissism. Everyone uses Facebook and the like as a mirror. Profiles are filled with countless photos of the self, and as Friend Request shows, friend count is as arbitrary as any other number. Sure, no new revelations (see: Kurosawa's Pulse) but still relevant, and surprising coming from an otherwise bland film. It can be argued that Marina was using her profile for just as much narcissism as Laura, but as Laura uncovers more about her temporary online friend she sees that they were possibly cries for help. The film doesn't necessarily side with Marina, suggesting that either purpose is not good for one's health.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor of Cinema Adrift.