The two Madness films from the mid 1930s have earned their positions as hyper paranoid propaganda and have arrived at such a level by using C-movie tactics through their cautionary storytelling. On top of this, these two films seem to be made by people who don’t actually know anything about the subjects they are intent upon demonizing. And now three quarters of a century after them, Disconnect is in keeping with the simplicity of these movies, but is armed with awareness, relevancy and smarts that set it apart. Still, with an uneven story and goofy caveats, this slick PSA isn’t strong enough to make all that much of a lasting impression on its target audience.
Loosely connecting the tales of people who experience life-changing events because of the Internet, Disconnect tells three different stories with authenticity that can be confirmed by numerous real life news reports. (This is especially the case with two stories that try to wrap their heads around the real chaos that is online bullying and identity theft.)
First, there’s the story of a teenage boy (Jonah Bobo) who is targeted by two other boys in his school as their latest prank. Because they think he’s weird (for being a skateboarder who likes Sigur Ros), they seek to embarrass him by posing as a flirty girl from another school on Facebook. Ben is eventually driven to reciprocate a pornographic photograph, which is then shared by the two Facebooking hooligans with everyone in school. Humiliated, Ben tries to take his own life, inspiring his distant and devastated father (Jason Bateman, in his most compelling film role in years) to investigate what drove Ben to such horrific actions.
Lastly, there’s the story of video cam performer Kyle (Max Thieriot), who lives in a type of media brothel with other young men and women who make a living as online prostitutes. Kyle’s story catches the sympathy of reporter Nina (Andrea Riseborough), who wants to make a news feature about Kyle’s dark profession and tries to save him, despite his resistance.
As it seeks to caution its audience as to the negative aspects of the Internet, Disconnect shows itself to be narrow-minded in its cynicism, ignoring positive aspects of such a connected technology. Most of all, Disconnect seeks to warn its audience that the internet is a massive monster that needs control, its destructive quality feeds off naiveté and trust and such conflicts will put many people in danger. There’s nothing in this movie about the internet being used as a positive tool. Even a reference to George Takei’s obnoxiously over-shared Facebook page would be a welcome nod to the good such expansive technology can bring.
Texting, Facebook and the Internet are some things that are still hard for movies to wrap their heads around. These three still show up awkwardly in movies, in visual references (like Facebook being used as a source of character background information in recent Sundance movie The East) or in clunky dialogue references; it wasn’t too long ago Nyqvist told Taylor Lautner in the terrible action movie Abduction that he was going to kill him and “all of his friends on Facebook.”
Texting is gradually making its way into movies, which is very interesting; as often as we may text in real life, people in films are still having their big conversations in person. Wouldn’t one suspect that numerous big discussions in contemporary romantic situations would more likely just happen over the phone? (How often do you see people having fights over texts in movies? Not nearly as often as you see them doing it in public, at airports, etc.)
That being said, what Disconnect best captures is the atmosphere of when we are communicating to people on our devices, the illumination of our technology closing off our bubble from the rest of the world. This film is very sharp to the silence during such interaction, when we are talking to people with our fingers, with their presence represented by the emotionless form of text (sometimes accompanied by a profile picture). Along with this, Disconnect is also smart to how people look when using such technology, our faces zonked out, often regardless of whatever emotion we are evoking with our text communication.
While proudly taking on the concept of a cautionary tale, Disconnect does show some control of the time with its subject matter. For example, there are no glaring moments in which it is made obvious the lack of phone presence when people are “connecting” (such an element would just be too easy). Along with this, the movie doesn’t entirely lose its mind like Reefer Madness, which constantly pushes its story to hilariously, desperate, dramatic situations to prove a wayward point (rapid piano playing leads to death in the 1936 film). Disconnect sometimes does beg comparison to Reefer Madness for sharing the same simple goal, to reach out to a very specific audience and warn them, but this film proves to be a bit sharper than that. Disconnect has also got more cojones than any regular mainstream movie, as its overall conclusion dares to challenge the satisfaction audiences may crave.