Control. Alter. Delete.
Adapted from the play Chatroom, written by Enda Walsh, who also worked as a screenwriter on the project, Chatroom is a British produced thriller directed by Japanese filmmaker Hideo Nakata, helming his first ever English-speaking feat. With dramatically dashing and sincerely frightening Japanese horror flicks, such as Ring (1998), Ring 2 (1999) and Dark Water (2002), under his belt, Chatroom seemed like the perfect career step for Hideo; undertaking a picture which would comment on potential uncertainties or reservations of using the internet, in particular internet chat rooms, as his film Ring somewhat explored the Video Home System (VHS) — which, at the time, was the most popular source of mainstream technology-based entertainment — examining dangers and fears around the picture-remitting rectangular doohickey. Now, in 2010, with the internet — specifically social media, such as Facebook, Kik, Qooh.me and other such ‘chat’ sites — being a primary high-tech pastime for contemporary teenagers, Hideo’s picture delves into the dangers and repercussions one could experience while incorrectly using, or innocently misusing, the Internet, where chat room users may fall into the trap of unquestionably trusting people they may not know outside of online space; as not everyone is who they say they are when masked behind the shield that is world-wide-web.
Chatroom tells the story of William (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a depressed, malicious teen, recovering from self-harm, who regularly ventures into online chat rooms. Possibly through boredom, William one-day decides to open up a chat room of his very own, naming it ‘Chelsea Teens!’ When jaded teenagers, Jim (Matthew Beard), a miserable and lonely individual, Eva (Imogen Poots), a wannabe model mocked by her friends, Emily (Hannah Murray), a naïve goody two-shoes desperate for parental attention, and Mo (Daniel Kaluuya), a young man attracted to his friend’s prepubescent sister, meet William online, they are instantly seduced by his charm and charisma. But beneath William’s showy surface lies a much darker truth, as William is in fact a calculating and scheming individual, who finds it almost impossible to interact normally with others in the real world, thus channeling all his energy into manipulating people online. With no actual subject matter to ‘chat’ about in ‘Chelsea Teens!’ the teenagers focus on the lives of one another, as they discuss their most inner feelings and desires, with several disclosing deep-seeded personal secrets; while the film depicts an old hotel-like structure, with many themed rooms, as the physical embodiment of the Internet — where the kid’s dealings mostly take place — in reality, the teenager’s communication mostly occurs through text/ keyboard typing.
With Jim’s vulnerability sparking an unhealthy fascination in William, as Jim harbors deep feelings of guilt and depression over his fathers abandonment — which occurred when he was only a young boy — Jim has no idea just how dangerous his new-found friendship with William could potentially be. When Jim confesses that he is on anti-depressants — and has been for quite some time — William targets Jim as his next victim, venomously vowing to help him stop using the mood altering drugs — presenting suicide as the only option of freedom — while simultaneously coercing the rest of the chat room group into become pawns in his sadistic scheme. What starts out as friendly advice to aid Jim, quickly escalates into something twisted and criminal, with Eva and Mo eventually catching on to William’s deadly game. As the wheels are set in motion, Jim is placed on a path of self-destruction, as he plans to do the unthinkable by taking his own life. With Eva, Emily and Mo racing against the clock, attempting to stop Jim from self-harm, William begins a terrorizing game of cat-and-mouse, hunting them across the Internet, shutting down their systems, and cutting them off from his unwary victim.
On an aesthetic level, Chatroom is quite a lurid film, showcasing some intriguing imagery, as the Internet — along with the ‘Chelsea Teens!’ chat room — is presented as an idiosyncratic, dazzling, high-contrast whimsical space, while reality is depicted in an opposing bleached-out mundane manner, with both environments having a vivid and distinct dissimilarity. Rather than constructing a ‘modern’ or ‘high-tech’ Internet world, production designer Jon Henson, Boy A (2007), has instead attempted to envisage something rather different, as the film’s representation of cyberspace is an outlandish beaten-up, used hotel location, decorated with dyed sets, bright costumes and boisterous props. The Internet in Chatroom is seen as somewhat of a ‘rented’ space, as it appears to have been used, then reused and repainted, or refurbished, time-and-time-again, by a multitude of consumers — who often personalize their own ‘quarters’ — and while this interpretation is far from being a literal impression of what the Internet may be, it’s a very interesting and unique visualization to say the least. Chatroom also features a couple of quirkily unusual claymation sequences, reminiscent of Australian Academy Award winning stop-motion artist, Adam Elliot, Mary and Max (2009), garnishing the film’s overall visual allurement.
While the Picture looks fanciful, Walsh’s uneven script, which should have been much more evocative or thought-provoking, as a study of online dynamics between five apathetic teenagers — frustrated or missing something within their own lives — comes across feeling predominantly flat, sluggish and unprevailing, with underwritten characters, who are given hazy motives, bleary subtext and very little context behind their often questionable actions. Even Jim, who operates as the central focus for the film’s conflict, doesn’t seem to make that fundamental human connection with audiences, particularly given the character’s looming self-annihilation.
The talent, with a cast largely made up of unknown names — specifically around the time of the picture’s release — mostly deliver passable performances, even though the script is often rigid and unmoving. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Godzilla (2014) plays to his strengths as the vindictive William, with his large quaking eyes sending off an uneasy vibe, displaying the character’s disheveled mind-space and unpredictability. Matthew Beard, An Education (2009), is simply going through the motions as the recluse Jim, with his performance coming across as rather forgetful, as he fails to convey any real peculiarity or definitiveness in the role. Imogen Poots, Fright Night (2011), has very little to do as Eva, bar look pretty, and again stumbles to make any sort of long lasting impression. Those I’m personally acquainted with will know of my irrefutable affinity towards the gorgeous British born actress Hannah Murray — gaining her big-break in E4’s Skins back in 2007 — who plays Emily, and while Murray’s screen-time is sadly quite limited — not having been given much to do throughout proceedings — this mesmerizing beauty still manages to enchant, portraying Emily with a sweet girl-next-door charm, making her a solid draw-card to an otherwise mediocre flick. Rounding up the group of teens is Daniel Kaluuya, playing Mo — who, like Murray, got his chance to shine in Skins, back in 2007 — being quite possibly the most interesting of the ‘Chelsea Teens!’ cluster, as the role of an adolescent ‘pedophile,’ or sexual predator, is an extremely challenging and daring one, particularly for a young up-and-comer, and Kaluuya displays some sincere conflict in Mo’s attempted justification, and his willingness to either accept, deny or overcome these perverted sexual urges. Regrettably, Mo is again severely under-developed and simply tossed aside, making way for undue clichéd thriller-type tension.
Dealing with controversially grim themes/ issues of loneliness, adolescent depression and youth suicide, Chatroom may certainly be a difficult sit through for some, yet, this feat doesn’t manage to pack the weighty emotional punch it really ought to, as hollow characters and an underdeveloped script veer too often into formulaic territory and lack any real substance. Chatroom is a tale of manipulation, as the click of a finger can have severe consequences, and director Hideo Nakata attempts to study teen interactions in an online domain, primarily how these dealings may become hazardous, in turn, destroying one’s social relationships and ability to connect with others outside of the electronic highway. Ultimately, the translation of Chatroom, from stage to screen, more or less falls flat, even though Nakata does try his very best to hold audience attention, generating some terrific eye-catching visuals of a heightened-reality Internet space. For some, spending time on an actual Internet chat room may in fact be more enjoyable than sitting through this so-so flick, but Hannah Murray’s screen presence certainly kept me entertained for the film’s 97-minute run-time.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by S-Littner
Chatroom is released through Reel Corporation Australia