December 22, 2010 Leave a comment
Amid the slew of saccharine family flicks and rehashed sequels this holiday season, Chatroom is assuredly Christmas fare of another sort; it is a unique, unsentimental idea with a promising visual style, and that certainly counts for something. This is also where the praise for the latest film from Hideo Nakata, the director of the much-lauded Ring films, ends, because he bungles his subject in ways I previously believed unimaginable.
Chatroom revolves around a group of teens who meet in an online chat room and quickly become closely acquainted, sharing their problems and in essence becoming “friends”. However, the loudest and most charming member of the group, William (Aaron Johnson) has other designs; he aims to convince the fragile, suicidal member of the group, Jim (Matthew Beard) to kill himself, apparently just for his own demented amusement. The others, upon discovering this, must try to stop him.
The inherent problem with Chatroom is that, given the advent of more invasive social networking applications like MySpace and Facebook, Nakata’s lecture on the dangers of Internet chat rooms feels incredibly passée. Perhaps five years ago, when Edna Walsh’s original play was written, this was a relevant issue, but given how drastically the landscape of web-based communication has evolved in the interim, how truly salient is it now? Despite the film’s merits stylistically, this is the cinematic equivalent of watching an old public service information video on the danger posed by Communists; at a time perhaps harrowing and dubiously informative, but now a tired act of stating the obvious, and at its worst, more than a little patronising.
Though there is little impetus to see this film, it does at least succeed on a visual level; while evidently low budget, the chat rooms themselves are presented in an interesting manner, rooted in a faux-physical locale, presumably for the sake of not having characters leering over keyboards for the entire film. These rooms are distinguished by a strong aesthetic contrast to the starkly dull locales of London, accentuated by some grim filtering work in the brief instances the kids aren’t chatting away.
Conceptually, however, the film is an overblown mess; speaking as someone who was an Internet-savvy teen during the chat room craze of the early 2000s, these characters’ overt reliance on the chat room as an outlet feels horribly underdeveloped, and the importance they place upon these dubious friendships as a result rings absolutely false. It is difficult to fathom how even the most desperate, emotionally disturbed teen could place so much stock in lines of text, let alone that it would result in such an off-the-rails concoction of maudlin teen angst, murder attempts, and woefully inert family drama. A subplot in which one character essentially outs himself to be a paedophile-in-waiting is particularly painful.
Aaron Johnson leads the pack in terms of performance quality, as is to be expected, though not even he can rise above the horrid script, which fails to place a single particularly likeable character despite its shoehorned attempts for us to root for the angsty nerd and against the antagonistic William. In addition to the aforementioned dunces, we have the prissy girl, and the overly pampered one, each character as ugly and detestably one-note as the next. Things reach a nearly unbearable head when the plot devolves into a poorly executed, only scarcely coherent psycho-drama, and the absurdly overblown finale is the film’s solitary bout of unintentional hilarity.
They say write what you know. Apparently Edna Walsh knows very little about the world of Internet chat rooms, because this comes across as utterly disingenuous, repugnant gutter-dreck that boasts some visual sophistication and a decent effort from Aaron Johnson, but it’s otherwise a sloppy mess, and a disappointing production given Nakata’s reputation.