Hideo Nakata | 94 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | UK / English | 15 / R
Chatroom is born of — or, at least, partly formed around — trying to find a viable way of depicting the world of online chatrooms on film. Putting on film this world it As It Really Is — people sat at a computer typing at each other — might work well enough for a single scene in Closer, say, but who would want an entire feature of people sat before a glowing screen, fingers tapping, while we have to read all the ‘dialogue’? Chatroom is one possible solution.
I don’t imagine it was the film’s sole goal — presumably presenting the online world in a filmic (or, as it originated as a play, stage-friendly) way was a necessary aside for wanting to set a story in that world. Sadly, the actual tale being told isn’t up to all that much.
To take those two ideas that way round, then, Japanese horror director Hideo Nakata (Ring, Ring 2, The Ring 2) presents the world of chatrooms as a corridor of literal rooms, which — if you’re going for the metaphorical route — is possibly the best way to express online chatrooms on screen. Once in the rooms, people talk — as you would online, except with your voice instead of your fingers. The genuine intimacy and friendship that develops between the characters in this environment is also truthful. There have been many reviews that are completely dismissive of this facet of the film, leaving me to wonder if they were written by people who haven’t used or experienced such things. It’s a shame, then, that the film’s degeneration into a thriller hides the arguably-worthwhile potential to explain to such people what that online world can be like for people/kids using it.
For all the understanding of the online world, the liberal use of tech occasionally gets in the way. Apparently lead-character William is an expert at hacking, Photoshopping, and all kinds of other computer jiggery-pokery… when the plot wants him to be. There’s nothing to suggest he isn’t capable of all that, and yet it doesn’t quite gel that he is. It seems to be aiming it at an audience ignorant of how computers work, in that William is defined as “a character who is good with computers”, which therefore translates as “a character who can Do Anything with a computer”. It doesn’t hang together.
Like, in many respects, the plot. This is why I wonder which came first, story or concept, because while the latter is fully realised, the former is scrappier. Early subplots don’t really go anywhere, like the story’s searching around for where it wants to explore. The final act collapses into an aimless runaround as it attempts to tack on some kind of exciting thriller-esque climax. Despite a strong-ish start, perhaps the whole second half of the film is a wobbly mess; not directionless exactly, because by then it does know broadly where it’s going, but it doesn’t do much to suggest to the viewer that it has a real goal in mind. Character motivations and relationships feel as if they’ve not been fully thought out, or at least not fully brought together on screen. Some threads take inexplicable jumps; others aren’t adequately explained or justified. Occasionally it’s Nakata’s direction that overdoes things, for instance laying the soppy “this bit is emotional” music on thick when Matthew Beard’s performance could easily carry a particular sequence.
The cast is populated by young up-and-comers, some of whom have very much up-and-come since. As the initially enigmatic William, Aaron Johnson (Nowhere Boy, Kick-Ass) isn’t bad, though he’s done no favours by the role. There’s the makings of an interesting character here, but it doesn’t coalesce into something recognisable as a real human being. Imogen Poots (28 Weeks Later, Centurion, etc etc) and Hannah Murray (the original Skins cast) discarded in supporting roles. Daniel Kaluuya (also original-flavour Skins, plus Black Mirror episode two) fares marginally better, though again his character and storyline is woefully underdeveloped.
The aforementioned Matthew Beard, perhaps the least recognisable cast member (his CV shows lots of stuff, just nothing with a significant part for him), gets the best of it. His character is the closest to having a believable arc, to even having credible motivations and actions. The scene-with-too-much-music should hopefully ensure he wins some better roles in the future, though, as that link shows, there’s nothing much yet.
Chatroom is an experiment in presenting an intrinsically unfilmic world in a way that works on screen. It does a fair job of that, though it feels too idiosyncratic to become The Way It’s Done. Sadly, the story it’s married to isn’t as competent. While something like that bears telling — especially as we see increasing reports of online abuse and the establishment struggling with how to police and prosecute it — this isn’t the ideal form. If cinema is (at times, of course) meant to reflect the world we live in, this is very much the world a massive (and ever-growing) number of people now live in. Hopefully Chatroom won’t put someone off trying again sometime.
This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2012. Read more here.