Although most people who recognize his name will likely associate it with the Night Watch movies, or perhaps his one true smash, the box office hit Wanted, filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov has been secretly making a new name for himself as a pioneer in a single niche genre: the screen-based genre film. Bekmambetov is the producer of both Unfriended movies and this fall's mainstream hit Searching, and has directed his own entry, Profile, currently making the rounds at festivals (with Liked and Unfollowed appearing on his IMDb as being in post-production). Like the eerily effective Profile, Unfriended: Dark Web (the directorial debut of Grudge remake writer Stephen Susco) shifts away from the supernatural story told in the original Unfriended and moves toward real-world scares.
Matias (Colin Woodell) has just gotten a "new" laptop (new to him, not brand new) and is figuring out how to use it when the movie begins. His main desire in getting a faster computer is the ability to use his program Papaya to communicate in ASL with his deaf girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras), but it also pleases his group of game night friends on Skype -- the newly-engaged Nari (Betty Gabriel) and Serena (Rebecca Rittenhouse), British tech guy Damon (Andrew Lees), dopey podcaster AJ (Connor Del Rio), and Lexx (Savira Windyani) -- who are glad to see him upgrading to something more modern. The only problem is that the previous owner's notifications keep popping up, and they're getting increasingly strange: numerous women demanding "Norah" buy them plane tickets, talk of transactions past and present, and finally, a woman named Erica demanding to know where Matias got the laptop...a question that will quickly become relevant to Mathias and all of his friends as they dig deeper into the computer's contents and find themselves wrapped up in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse.
Susco, who also wrote the script, brings in some welcome connections to the first Unfriended. Like that film, this is a classic horror morality tale, with the terrifying twists and turns serving as payback for a transgression. There is also a scene where anonymous Skype callers begin a nerve-wracking numerical countdown. "Old friends" and "online interaction" are things that easily hamstring writers, but Susco acquits himself nicely enough, with the caveat that most viewers (myself included) aren't going to know enough about the "dark web" to know whether or not the movie's portrayal of it is accurate. Not all of the friend group is entirely fleshed out -- Damon is vaguely defined until he tries to use technical solutions to help Mathias out of trouble, and Lexx never gets much of a personality, but the two romantic relationships in the film are fleshed out enough for some level of emotional investment.
What the film lacks in group dynamic, it makes up for in mystery. Unfriended's ghost story was compelling, but the spookiness of the dark web is more than a good enough hook for a follow-up. Susco successfully conveys the back-alley sense of danger as Mathias pokes deeper and deeper into the computer's hidden folders, and, like the first movie, the anonymity of the movie's antagonist adds to the atmosphere (viewers may find themselves having nightmares about the default Skype avatar). It would be hard to make a case that either Unfriended isn't at least a little silly, but there's just the right amount of arm's-length information to keep the viewer guessing as Susco unravels the film's various twists and turns.
Dark Web does not feel as ambitious or as savvy about the ways the people use their screens as the first film, but the film never drags or becomes visually uninteresting. The electronic distortion that surrounds the people that come looking for the laptop is a ridiculous conceit, and yet Susco makes it work (with the exception of one goofy bit of warped video in a YouTube clip of a character's death). Sound design is generally effective, including the brutal crack of a weapon against someone's skull, and the eerie silence that frequently hangs in the air as characters wait for another shoe to drop. It's goofy, but Unfriended: Dark Web taps into a certain fear of the power technology places at people's fingertips -- while writing this review, I found myself looking over my shoulder.
Unfriended: Dark Web gets a pretty straightforward Blu-ray package. The original poster art of a person screaming, eyes covered with what looks like a plastic bag, is replicated, with added banners promoting the disc's 3 alternate endings, and the digital copy. The one-disc release comes in Viva Elite Blu-ray case, with an insert featuring a MoviesAnywhere Digital HD code. The entire package comes inside a glossy, embossed slipcover with identical art.
The Video and Audio
Unfriended: Dark Web is presented in a 1.78:1 1080p AVC transfer that generally looks good, to the extent that it is ever meant to look "good." There are intentional video distortion errors, "webcam" video (which is prone to white crush, aliasing, softness, etc), and other little anomalies, but all of these things are obviously attributable to the way the film is meant to look -- the most important aspect here is that the viewer can clearly read text on the screen, which is rendered crisply. The same aesthetic license goes for the movie's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track -- characters move toward and away from laptop microphones, drop out, and sometimes "blow out" -- all part of the design. Silence (or the relative silence of anything but keyboard tapping) is a big piece of the action here, with some minimal score cues. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
Trailers for The First Purge, Delirium, The Keeping Hours, and The Little Stranger play before the main menu. No theatrical trailer for Unfriended: Dark Web has been included.
The three alternate endings advertised on the cover represent the only extras on the disc. They're presented as a "choose your own adventure" ending with the subtitle "Who Deserves to Live?" To avoid spoilers, I can't reveal the titles of each one, but there are, obviously, three separate options (5:30, 7:52, and 7:03). One of the endings, the last of the three options, played during certain showtimes in theaters, ala the original Clue, and it is easily the most satisfying of the three alternate endings, and in fact may even be better than the film's theatrical ending. The other two are shrugs, anti-climactic attempts where the viewer will be able to suss out the thinking, but also see why they were jettisoned. It's a shame that no alternate viewing options are available here. If selecting the other cut that played theatrically was an option, I'd go with that one every time.
Unfriended: Dark Web lacks some of the skill at manipulating the screen-based conceit of these films that the first one had, and the communication between the friend group feels a bit more artificial, but the dark web makes for a good spooky setting. The only shame is that the disc won't let you watch the alternate version of the movie that played in theaters, which has the superior ending. Recommended.