Billed as ‘the anti-social network’, Chatroom is, sadly, just anti-social.
A UK-based internet thriller directed by horror legend Hideo Nakata, and starring one of this year’s most promising young stars Aaron Johnson, this should have been at least interesting, if not a minor cult classic. Instead, it is just a truly terrible film that somehow manages to waste all the talent involved.
The premise is this: four teenagers, Jim (Matthew Beard), Eva (Imogen Poots), Emily (Hannah Murray), and Mo (Daniel Kaluuya) meet online in an internet chatroom called Chelsea Teens. There, they meet the creator of the site, William (Aaron Johnson), who on first appearance seems completely charming, charismatic and intriguing.
He is able to help the four strangers with their own personal problems, but it is soon revealed that William is not to be trusted. A troubled teen himself with a history of self-violence and depression, he is in fact manipulating the four for his own twisted games, and then begins to focus on Jim, in who he senses a similarity that can be exploited.
The problems are these. The entire look and feel of the production reeks of a bad student film, as if someone has watched Skins a bit too much and decided what it really needs is to be remade as a thriller about an outdated internet technology that no one has really used since the days of dial-up. The scenes of the teens conversing online are, to be fair, handled in quite an interesting way: it is played out as an alternate reality where the emotions of the characters are reflected in the bright colours and lighting of what seems to be a shabby hotel.
This is a refreshing change to the high-tech sophistication common to most other pieces dealing with this subject matter. However, like a lot of the film, what could have been a great idea is ruined by the execution. In many cases this is a complete lack of subtlety. William is revealed not to be a complete monster, but a very troubled boy who has turned down a dark path. In a scene in the Internet world where he is in an illegal chatroom where users verbally abuse others, he is shown watching from the sidelines with a backdrop of red wings behind him. Because you know, he’s like the devil now… yawn.
Another example of this is Eva, who is a model, and has a room with a giant picture of her face in it. Because she’s vain and self-obsessed, obviously. I also wish that the extremely good-looking cast hadn’t been playing themselves in the real world, as often an online avatar is an idealised version of you? Hell, I’d love to look like Aaron Johnson, and I’m pretty sure anyone who does isn’t some weird loner spending all his time by himself in a room.
The script also suffers from being an adaptation of an original stage play. The dialogue is often stilted and stagy, never quite breathing in that organic and natural way which we have come to expect from film. While this is understandable in the online environment, where characters are literally voicing words being written by their real-world selves, it sadly carries on offline, with William’s mother delivering some of the most cringe-worthy lines.
For a cast this stuffed with obvious talent, it is a real shame. There are also some bizarre plot points never entirely developed or dealt with effectively. I don’t want to spoil them here, but there are things that just seem to make little sense.
There are also the parts of the film which have obviously been thrown in to ‘look cool’, chief of which are the horrible animated sections. They jar with the tone of the rest of the movie, and only serve to aggravate the viewer. During a segment that animates how depressed Jim was after being left by his father at the zoo, Aaron Johnson actually intones the line, “he went to the zoo and thought it was poo.” Hmmm. And as for the film’s depiction of this depression, it is sadly another area where it falls short.
Depression is a difficult subject to treat with care and consideration, while also making it both realistic and dramatically engaging. Chatroom falls to using all the clichés. The kids cut themselves, use medication, and see suicide as the ultimate end point. They are moody and anti-social, but just come across as that, without any underlying issue.
They fit the cliché that only the Internet will welcome them, and indeed the whole film falls into the trap of making the world wide web every parent’s nightmare, where their child will be seduced by strangers and probably get involved in illegal activites. It trivialises every subject matter it touches, too, and leaves us with a film that’s a mess, and one that squanders the talents of all involved. A real pity.
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