Fantasia International Film Festival 2014 runs July 17 to August 6. Follow all of our coverage here.
Blaire (Shelley Hennig) is online chatting with her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) while they wait for their other four friends to join. The couple takes a brief stab at cyber-sex before they’re interrupted by the gang, but something isn’t right with their Skype connection. A seventh person is on the call. No one knows who it is, the person isn’t speaking and nothing they do seems to get rid of it. They soon discover the mystery caller’s motive has something to do with the suicide of a girl named Laura Barnes exactly one year ago.
Once the caller starts communicating it’s with death threats, shocking revelations and the seeming control of each person’s computer. Attempts to disconnect or reach outside help are squashed, efforts to delete certain pictures or accounts are made impossible and ultimately the six friends are forced to face just how tenuous their friendships truly are as they come face to face with the guilt of past misdeeds.
Cybernatural uses a similar format to the recently released The Den, but it does so to tell a very different story. We see only what appears on Blaire’s laptop screen, and nothing else, but in those dozens of windows and tabs a tale of cruelty, failed relationships and revenge unfolds. This sounds terrible I know, but you’ll just have to trust me here. It’s a slickly made production that serves to enhance the story as things play out with visuals that are both familiar and foreign to the social media addicts and film lovers in us all.
The two online videos relating to Laura’s death are played early on showing us both the cause and result of the harassment she received. One shows her passed out a party having defecated herself, and the other shows her press a gun to her head and pull the trigger. Between those two events we learn that the six friends present tonight shared the embarrassing footage and apparently mocked her mercilessly online over it. A message from Laura’s Faceboook asks Blaire a simple question: Who posted the video first? The answer just might save lives if it’s given in time.
Between Blaire’s webcam, Facebook, Spotify, Instagram and more we see a screen that probably resembles a lot of our own, and that identifiable nature becomes its own film language as the movie goes dialogue free for minutes at a time. Instead of narration telling us what’s happening we instead follow the mouse cursor and clicks, understanding and anticipating what Blaire’s doing because we’ve charted the same paths across our own screens. It’s smoothly crafted and the lack of a music score never dulls the experience. We know these sounds and these images, and they immerse us in the experience far better than expected.
The film’s technical merits are outstanding as director Levan Gabriadze shapes the entire thing into feeling like a true 80 minutes of online activity — you may even find yourself reaching for your mouse once or twice — and the cast deliver as well moving from casual banter to fear-induced moments of stress to sheer terror. Less successful, and what ultimately holds the film back (and from reaching the terrifying heights of The Den) is the script.
Much of the behaviors feel legitimate such as the attempts to memorialize a Facebook account or to find help in Chat Roulette, but other actions are glaring in their absence. Do none of these teens have Twitter? Once you know the death threats are real why not immediately run, in unison, away from your computers to an agreed upon locale? Would a “ghost” really know how to program in HTML and Adobe Shockwave? The film’s core concept — online bullying is serious and bad — is muted by the seeming lack of actual online bullying. That single video enables the teens to make fun of Laura, but it’s a far cry from an incessant online harassment as it’s just kids laughing at a girl for crapping her panties. There’s also the question that the mysterious caller wants answered… it’s clear almost immediately to us, but the film still plays the ultimate revelation as if it’s some grand surprise.
Cybernatural is a smoothly entertaining and somewhat suspenseful ride that tells a tale through tools that are familiar to us all while being unfamiliar to us when used in this way. Never boring and usually engaging, fans of supernatural revenge stories just might find themselves favoriting this one when it hits a computer screen near you later this year.
The Upside: Technically accomplished; suspenseful; well acted
The Downside: Some script issues; final “twist” is obvious from first ten minutes; never truly scary; never really about online bullying; no one tries Tweeting for help?
On the Side: The working title for the film was Offline.