"Unfriended" Little More Than Digital Noise

A teenage girl is bullied to death and returns to haunt her tormentors from beyond – but with a found footage, technological bent. Sound familiar? It’s a deliberate remix of old (“Carrie”), newer (“The Blair Witch Project”), and newest (“Paranormal Activity”), all three inelegantly mashed together into dumb movie “Unfriended.”

As a technical exercise, the film is a modest success. Unfolding in real time, the entire story is told via MacBook screen capture. Really! 82 minutes of a computer desktop! Blaire (Shelley Hennig) – former friend of aforementioned dead girl Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) – spends the entire movie darting back and forth between Skype, Facebook, iMessage, and Spotify, minimizing and maximizing windows like all of her screen-obsessed peers.

When Blaire, her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), and three other friends are flooded with messages from a mysterious presence that claims to be Laura Barns, bad things happen. The teens start offing themselves in increasingly grisly ways, quickly turning on each other as their deepest, darkest secrets are rooted out by the ghostly entity.

“Unfriended” reaches its guilty pleasure peak during a suspenseful game of “Never Have I Ever,” but the characters are so unlikable that the end result is immaterial. And while the cast delivers the script’s eye-rolling dialogue with admirable aplomb, they’re never given room to do anything but operate at near-hysterical levels. Subtlety is unwelcome here, mandated by the pic’s micro-budget, frantic pace, and untested talent.

The screen capture gimmick is a fine one, but it would have been better served by a real-world story. Ghost stories are hard to get right, and “Unfriended” doesn’t, making for a vague, unspecific threat that isn’t very threatening. As Laura’s supernatural powers are ostensibly limited to the web, it’s maddening that none of the film’s characters think to unplug.

If the narrative is meant as a commentary on society’s obsession with technology, it misfires there, too. The film is even more possessive of its tech than its characters are, putting enormous emphasis the most menial of tasks – clicking, typing, deleting. Its most egregious fault is its insistent use of a circular buffering symbol, almost always telegraphing a big jump scare.

“Unfriended” isn’t a bad movie, but it is a myopic one, using the highest of high concepts to say nothing at all. Its creativity begins and ends in its execution, stringing a short film premise into feature length running time. It might be the longest 82-minute movie ever made, like a magician repeating the same card trick ad nauseam. It might be impressive the first time around, but the tenth? Not as much.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: April 17, 2015
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Levan Gabriadze
Screenwriter: Nelson Greaves
Starring: Shelley Hennig, Moses Jacob Storm, Courtney Halverson, Jacob Wysocki, Will Peltz, Renee Olstead, Heather Sossaman
MPAA Rating: R (for violent content, pervasive language, some sexuality, and drug and alcohol use – all involving teens)