Moral Movie Reviews Moral Movie Reviews

The Moral Vacuum of Unfriended

Unfriended (2014) is a gimmick movie—one of scores of horror films released in 2015 that is aimed at teenage and young twenties audiences.  The entire film consists of computer screen images, largely of Facebook, Skype, and Instant Messaging on Mac.   Now that this has been done, we need to pray that no other producers decide to replicate it.  While I thought the gimmick was interesting during the first ten minutes of the film, it grew increasingly tiresome as the revenge plot played itself out, and I re-discovered what I don’t like about social media sites—they are numbingly banal after the first few minutes.  I don’t know how people can spend hours on them (or spend 83 minutes watching Unfriended—in my theatre everyone but me left before the film ended—I hung around until the predictable ending so I could write this review).

Whoever pitched the plot summary to backers of this film could have done it in less than a minute.  Seven friends are chatting online when one receives a message from a girl (Laura Barnes, played by Heather Sossaman) who killed herself after being shamed online.  Someone in the group posted a disgusting video of Barnes, which led to her suicide.  Now the friends are being cyberstalked by an unknown presence.  How this happens is never explained, but one by one the friends’ misdeeds (to Barnes as well as to each other) are revealed, and one by one they die, often by their own hands, as the ghost of Laura Barnes (or whoever’s behind it) exacts revenge.  This is a NOGOA horror film—No One Gets Out Alive.  It’s reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s far superior plot in her novel and stage play And   Then There Were None, which first appeared as a film in 1945. 

One of the central problems with Unfriended is that one of the characters are likable.  To a greater or lesser degree, they are bratty, snobbish, self-absorbed, irritating, amoral, and cruel.  That said, the most sympathetic character, at least initially, is Blaire Lily, played by Shelley Hennig.  Throughout the film, we see screen shots on her computer, so it’s from her perspective that the story unfolds and reaches the entirely predictable final demise.   In most films, the character whose point of view dominates the story is either the moral center of the film or the moral antithesis of a secondary character whose moral center provides a counterpoint to the central character’s flaws.  In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for example, the moral center of the film is Chief Bromden, who escapes from the mental hospital at the end.  McMurphy (played by Jack Nicholson) is the decidedly amoral central character.  McMurphy’s iconoclasm and reckless disregard for the rules enables Bromden and other inmates to glimpse freedom (notably in the fishing boat scene), but his lack of restraint and disregard for the consequences of his actions causes hospital authorities to impose what amounts to McMurphy’s death sentence.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a powerful film because it has a clear moral center.  But in Unfriended, there is no moral center—and that is one of the film’s principal flaws.  All of the characters, including Blaire Lily, are despicable.  They have sinned and are all punished for their sins.  The only dramatic action in the film is the revealing of each character’s secrets, but this hardly makes for a captivating story.  Unfriended would have been a stronger, more interesting film if (a) Laura Barnes had truly been an innocent victim; (b) if Blaire Lily had been innocent, had some moral backbone and chided the others for their misdeeds, and gone to her death as a victim of a miscarriage of justice (in which case, the film’s message might have been that the universe is unfair and the innocent sometimes die); or (c) if Laura Barnes’ ghost (or whatever took over their computer screens) had wanted to shame them but let them live.  As it is, this ghost is no more moral than the people it kills and has no motive other than revenge.  The audience can’t relate to or empathize with any of the characters because they are all such horrible human beings, and there seems to be no message in this film except for a caution about the damage you can do to others by shaming them online.  That simple message could have been made in 2 minutes of screen time instead of 83.  The moral vacuum of Unfriended  leaves it with nothing to say, and it will vanish into the dustbins with countless other poorly conceived horror films that come and go quickly and are rarely, if ever, seen again.



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