Back in 2014, when the computer-based "Unfriended" was released, the kind of online menace we could imagine was mostly bullying — an anonymous mob unleashed online. That was even the platform First Lady Melania Trump announced as the issue she was going to tackle in the White House. That all seems so quaint these days. Now, in the summer of 2018, with the release of "Unfriended: Dark Web," the online threats to the very fabric of our existence are so much realer, and so much more human. Foreign hackers are being indicted for meddling in United States elections, bitcoin and blockchain are on everyone's lips (even if no one really understands them), and "Unfriended: Dark Web" is poised to capitalize on the zeitgeist.
The smartly constructed sequel to "Unfriended" is written and directed by Stephen Susco, a seasoned horror screenwriter making his directorial debut. He uses the same device as the first film, taking place entirely on a computer screen, populated by a Skype session among a friend group of young adults who live their lives online. The story is woven together from the traces and pieces of themselves they leave smeared on the internet, stitched together for our entertainment with a sense of the multitasking, attention-deficit way our brains seem to work while surfing the web.
It's game night for the group of college pals who convene on Skype to play Cards Against Humanity and catch up with each other. Our avatar, the person whose screen experience we're experiencing, is Matias (Colin Woodell). He's just had a spat with his girlfriend, Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras), via Facebook chat over a program he's attempting to develop to ease their communication (she's deaf, and he's terrible at sign language). But he has high hopes for his program with a new-to-him laptop, as soon as he can sign the old user out.
The prior owner of the laptop has left a pesky digital residue. Random, persistent Facebook messages pop up with promises of large amounts of money for a mysterious custom job. Matias is drawn into the realm of the dark web, a journey he takes his friends on with him as they chat together. What they find on the laptop reveals a deep network of individuals willing to trade huge sums of money for hideously cruel and depraved acts. And now that Matias has the laptop and they've discovered the group, the targets are on their backs.
The storytelling craft of "Unfriended: Dark Web" is fascinating to watch, as it unspools entirely on Facebook, Skype, FaceTime and other modes of communication on a computer screen. But as a horror film, it's incredibly grim. There's no real excitement or cat-and-mouse games to play here. Once the group has been identified, it's simply a matter of waiting to see how gruesomely the secretive dark webbers will weaponize the internet against the group of innocent kids. Frankly, it's just no fun.
Perhaps it's no fun because it's just too real. There's never a moment of wondering what is going on. We're all too aware of the nefarious and evil forces regularly going to work to disrupt our lives daily, and we've seen the repercussions of their actions play out on the news every day. While "Unfriended: Dark Web" is a clever concept of cinematic design and storytelling, it proves to only be a deeply chilling cautionary tale.
"Unfriended: Dark Web" — 2.5 stars
When: Now playing
Where: Wide release
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes