By Nick L’Barrow
It’s always a fascinating draw for me when filmmakers use current technology as a story telling device. Take for instance the horror film Unfriended or the hit-thriller Searching, both told completely through computer screens, using the apps we use daily. And while I would consider Unfriended more of a guilty pleasure than a good movie, a film like this and Searching have both proven as viable assets for filmmakers to expand their visual story-telling horizons and still create intriguing movies to watch.
Directing her first feature film, Russian filmmaker Anna Zaytseva has utilized this filmmaking format for #Blue_Whale, a drama-thriller that was inspired by actual cybercrimes that rampaged around Eastern Europe, allegedly responsible for the deaths of 130 different teenagers and inspiring the ‘Momo’ challenge that shook the internet in 2019.
#Blue_Whale is centred around Dana (Anna Potebnya), who after the freakish and mysterious death of her sister, begins to explore her online history and discovers she was part of a sinister social media ‘game’ which required its participants to do variously escalating challenges, eventually leading to the final task, taking your own life. In order to hunt down the faceless villains who caused her sister’s death, Dana joins the challenge to investigate, but finds herself trapped when the game starts getting to close to home for her and her family.
If I had to sum up this film in one word, it would be ‘confrontational’. Zaytseva is unafraid to shy away from disturbing and graphic content within this story, including many scenes of teens senselessly causing their own deaths, to a brutal scene of self-harm. As to whether this level of graphic nature served the story well was a little bit lost on me. I’m not one to shy away from excessive moments, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that with this story dealing with the subject matter it’s putting forward, there was a lack of empathy towards the real-life victims of these crimes. The ’game’ aspect of this challenge was played up for the shock value it was trying to put forward, rather than attempting to find compassion for the people who sadly lost their lives playing.
Now, I totally understand that this is a horror-film, and people die in awful ways in horror films, and that some horror films deal with awful, grotesque things that happen within our world. But there is this underlying tone of #Blue_Whale in particular that doesn’t give you the sense that it cares about the ramifications of the game, and just wants to show you how messed up it is. Whether that was intentional or not by Zaytseva, I’m unsure, but this film did not have me concerned for its protagonist.
The first act of this movie is rapid fire. Too fast in pace, in fact. Within minutes, we’re suppose to accept the death of the sister, and the fact that Dana has figured out how to infiltrate this challenge. By 30 minutes in, Dana has already completed most of the tasks she is required by this faceless-tyrant, and I was left wondering what else this story had to say. What enters is a boy who is also doing the challenge alongside Dana, who strikes up a friendship and is willing to help find out more about Dana’s sisters’ death. Together, they go through near-death situations, including the expected “live-stream-stalking” moments, or the threating of family members who are asleep cliché. This element of the story brings the film to a grinding halt, leading to an unsatisfying twist that leads to a redundant climax.
#Blue_Whale wants to feel like an authentic capsule of what the dark side of internet culture is like, but instead of finding out “why” these deadly social media challenges are happening, the film decides to simply ‘shock’ you into thinking they’re bad instead. The characters motives are there to go emotionally deeper into the story, the script just doesn’t want to do that, instead being a below average horror flick that will disturb you, but not in the way it should.
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