With the hype of The Social Network still buzzing through the very source of it’s own infamy, the world is tingling for high calibre films about the internet. We may recall Hackers with some nostalgia, much less so The Net; but otherwise, the last fifteen years has offered alarmingly few stand-out films about the all-consuming web. Probably because it’s about as cinematic a subject as Freud’s sub-conscious—unseen, amorphic, intangible and open to all manner of obfuscation. Which hasn’t stopped some people from trying. Al Pacino’s cringe-fest Simone is proof of how appalling ‘E-Movies’ can be. Unfortunately for producers, what makes the internet meaningful is something that can rarely be captured by sight or sound: the way our emotional lives are expressed through it. So it takes a director of incredible ingenuity to shed light on this brave new world to a degree of artistry that can compete with the top dogs.
My personal pique with ‘Tech Flicks’ is that no sooner has a fad been introduced than it becomes irrelevant. If you looked back now on your favourite 90’s hero and spotted him using a pager, you’d probably scoff aloud. Films are becoming increasingly prone to the contamination of modern gimmicks and unwitting product placements; iphones, ipads, Nokias, Sat-Nav Nikes and Blackberrys all threaten to obliterate the mysteries of human interaction. Technology in film can feel as garish and cheap as those Oh-So-Post-Modern Orange adverts. Don’t let a phone ruin your movie? More like Don’t let another Orange ad ruin your faith in western civilisation.
And yet the internet is so inseparable from modern consciousness it’s virtually impossible to exclude it from contemporary fiction. So with these setbacks considered, Chatroom may be one of the first genuinely original depictions of the internet that cinema has to offer. What Inception did for dreams, Chatroom does for social networks, and not too badly at that.
Don’t get me wrong, this psychological thriller is still very much a ‘teen movie’, and some of the dialogue feels like something ripped out of Skins. But while Skins tries to be edgy in its portrait of juvenile decadence, Chatroom takes adolescence to the virtual-physical stage. And it is the disparity between the de-saturated misery of the characters’ real lives, and the rich, boundlessly expressive world of their online lives that makes this film unique.
Cut to the chase. Damaged but charismatic William (Aaron Johnson), gets the ball rolling by creating ‘Chelsea Teens!’ – a chatroom to meet people and make friends. But his apparent friendliness hides a sinister, tormented side, so when four lost souls hop on board they have no idea what’s in store. We have Eva (Imogen Poots), the brittle model with an identity crisis, Emily (Skins’ own Hannah Murray) the categorical geek, Mo (Daniel Kaluuya), the humble pie with an inappropriate crush, and Jim (Matthew Beard), the weedy depressive who becomes the film’s main focus. As the group spend more time together online, William coerces them to reveal their secrets and become increasingly vulnerable. So when Jim confides his reliance on anti-depressants, William takes a turn far more devious than even we can expect.
The online world consists of what can only be described as a run-down, abstractly seedy hotel, with distressed wall-paper and theme park lights extending into infinity. Every room opens up a new virtual space or chat room, and the vibe of each room is reflected in every aspect of the art design. Behind one door an East Asian child is subjected to a nightmare of cyber-bullying, with dark looping blood on the walls and epileptic imagery. Because this alternative life is something only the audience can see, we have the dramatic advantage of watching over the characters as their lives spiral out of control; a privilege that is as guiltily voyeuristic as it is unnerving.
This makes for a unusual ride, but we soon understand the rules. A potential paedophile enters the chatroom under a girl’s name, betrayed when he starts visibly flickering between a girl and a middle-aged man. Soon enough we are engaged in the story enough not to question it’s flaws, and what happens hereafter will be better seen than told. Every progression is packed with an emotional intensity that would be absurd in ‘real life’, but in the chat room, director Hideo Nakata takes artistic license to truly ring out the ugly side of 21st Century adolescence.
From the director who has single-handedly redefined the modern horror genre with credits including Ringu and Dark Water, Chatroom may be short of a masterpiece (it could quickly fall into obscurity by 2011), but as Cyber Flicks go, this is very pioneering territory.