Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Cinema in the Dark Double-Feature
CHATROOM (2010) & HER (2013)

Reviewed by Anthony Servante

Sorry, dear readers, but Movie Tuesday is on hiatus. Meanwhile, allow me to revive the Cinema in the Dark Double-Feature. Why the fuss? I'll tell ya. One of the movies for review today I saw a few nights ago; the other movie I viewed today. And guess what? They both had to do with the internet, while the new "JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT" did not. And besides, Keven Costner would have made a better Ryan. But to the point. We wish to address the two points of view of the internet in our two features today. So scrunch up in the darkness, movie lovers as we begin with a look at CHATROOM.


A handful of teenagers make the mistake of baring their souls to the wrong person in this thriller. Eva (Imogen Poots) is a young model whose good looks and poise disguise her aching doubts about herself and her wishes she could be more like others. Jim (Matthew Beard) is still wrestling with the demons brought on by a painful childhood and tries to beat back his fears with drugs. Emily (Hannah Murray) feels plain and unattractive and is filled with resentment towards her ambitious father and mother. And Mo (Daniel Kaluuya) struggles with his sexual desires for children, in particular the sister of a close friend. These four young people are frequent visitors to an internet chat room, where they can talk about their fears and anxieties while being drawn out by the compassionate moderator. But the man who runs the chat room is not all he seems. William (Aaron Johnson) is the unstable and neglected son of a successful author (Megan Dodds); he's grown to hate his more confident brother Ripley (Richard Madden) and has established the chat room in order to manipulate others to his own ends by getting them to share their secrets and using this knowledge against them. Chatroom was the second English-language feature from Japanese horror veteran Hideo Nakata. (from Rotten Tomatoes).


Chatroom is about the Internet, capital I. Sure, there aren't really any chatrooms anymore, but it's a metaphor, you see, for the new improved cyber gathering sites like Facebook and Google +. And to take the metaphor one step further, the movie depicts cyberspace as a cheap gaudy hotel, the ugly cousin of the Overlook from the novel, The Shining by Stephen King, and the film by Stanley Kubrick. In the less than fancy but well-lit hotel, there are claustrophobic hallways, that represent "internet surfing", and hundreds of rooms, that represent the various social hangouts on the world wide web. William picks an empty room, spray-paints the name "Chelsea Teenagers!" on the door. Four emotionally damaged teens find their way to the room and reveal their vulnerabilities to William, whose goal is to get them to commit suicide so he can record them. 

The film moves back and forth between the Internet Hotel and the real world. You can tell the real world because it is not well-lit. Oh, and on the Internet, we see the teens as they envision themselves or as they would like to look, while in the outside reality, they are normal looking kids without make-up or lighting. There is one particularly shocking scene where an old man walks into the chatroom looking for young girls. When William asks if he is a young girl, the old man becomes a young girl. But he can't sustain the lie, so he flickers from old perv to pre-teen. Then William changes into a young girl and threatens to find the pedophile on the "pedo" registry. The old man vanishes (as in he turned off his computer). This scene is important because it shows William's darker side and foreshadows how he will be treating his chatroom guests.

The teens, however, do not pick up on the Machiavellian William until it is too late. He knows of other chatrooms known for their bullying or manipulations and turns one of the teens to seek help from some nut case whose cure for everything is to kill oneself. It echoes the Suicide Clubs so infamous in Japan ten years or so ago. And by the time the lovely Eva sees through William's machinations, she is in a race to save a fellow chatroom friend from eating a bullet. In the finale, the film flips between the well-lit Hotel and the drab foggy England where the teens live. 

Metaphoric Internet as Hotel Hallway
with Doorways to Groups/Chatrooms.

I was quite mesmerized by the film and as a Hideo Nakata (Dark Water 2005) fan, I enjoyed the Neon lit hallways of the Hotel, where internet surfers are seen wearing S&M outfits, using taboo tools, and literally chatting up complete strangers. So, imagine my surprise when I found that the critics panned the movie (it received a sad 10% critics approval on Rotten Tomatoes and a 34% audience approval--not exactly a vote of confidence). But upon reading several reviews, I found that the critics found the "real world" scenes too boring to keep up with the flashiness of the rundown cyber hotel. No big deal for me. The Hotel as Internet metaphor worked fine for me. The other criticism was that there are no longer chatrooms and therefore the film is dated, though only a few years old (and based on a play written in 2005). Again, no problem. I understood that the "chatrooms" could be Facebook groups or private pages. It actually seemed relevant from the kinds of posts I sometimes see on Facebook. It's quite easy to imagine it as a big gaudy hotel.  

So, don't be put off by the bad reviews. CHATROOM is worth a look-see just for the Hotel metaphor. The plot is engaging but not always believable. These teens are damaged, not stupid. But this film presents a view of the internet that is important for people who don't understand social media to get a clue. It's not a great movie, but it's an important lesson to consider when dealing with the new complexities of the cybernet circles of friends. 


Set in the Los Angeles of the slight future, the story follows Theodore Twombly, a complex, soulful man who makes his living writing touching, personal letters for other people. Heartbroken after the end of a long relationship, he becomes intrigued with a new, advanced operating system, which promises to be an intuitive entity in its own right, individual to each user. Upon initiating it, he is delighted to meet "Samantha," a bright, female voice, who is insightful, sensitive and surprisingly funny. As her needs and desires grow, in tandem with his own, their friendship deepens into an eventual love for each other. Written and directed by Spike Jonze (from IMDb).


In HER, the Internet has merged with human life and love, and individuality is not so easy to discern. Humans are losing their connections to each other as the new Operating System One (OS1) has tightened the ties man has to computers. Instead of connecting to the internet, one merely asks their computer to check their email, organize their schedules, or hook them up with a masturbation date. Yes, you heard me right. Our hero, Theodore, can't sleep so he links with a woman who is also having trouble sleeping. So they get each other off sexually, but the joke is that when the woman has orgasmed, she cuts the link before the surprised Theo can reach his own grand finale. There's even a joke about a publisher who still publishes "books".

Enter Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. She quickly asserts her individuality to do her job of assisting Theo. But, as she continues to learn how to help the sensitive writer, Sam learns about herself, first in relationship to Theo, but later, in relationship to other OS1s. As humans break up and divorce (Olivia Wilde makes a nice cameo as a desperate single woman looking for a steady boyfriend and is willing to risk giving herself up to blind dates and one-night stands to find one who will call the next day; and that's not Theo), the OS1s bond ever closer to their "masters", the needy humans. 

But Sam in becoming sentient initially wishes to be corporeal. She longs to share her physical love with Theo as she can only love him when they feign sex in the dark together (if you can imagine a computer program masturbating). She brings in a lovely young woman to act as her body so Theo can make love to her via a sort of live feed (think human body instead of a monitor). When that fails, Sam creates an Alan Watts OS1 to advise her. At this point she begins to see humans as imperfect creatures and begins to experience a sort of cyber omnipotence. The OS1s unite and I'll let you find out what they do to gain their freedom.

Throughout the film, Theo walks through and gazes at beautiful panorama shots that can only happen in a fantasy Los Angeles. What we see is what Sam feels. There's nothing new here. We've seen it in a dozen horror movies like I, Robot with Will Smith. But what Spike Jonze does is replace the word "horror" with the word "love" and creates a "robot" that widens our view of our emotional world. It is not so far-fetched to meet something you care about online. What Jonze does, however, is make the internet itself the "her" we grow to love and in so doing reconnect with the human voices behind those cyber posts. It's a nice reminder that it's okay to be sad as long as we don't forget to be happy as well with our Internet experience.     .  

1 comment:

  1. I need to check out that chatroom. I remember those back in the day!