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Fantasia 2014: ‘Cybernatural’ a slick program marred by too many glitches

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Cybernatural

Written by Nelson Greaves

Directed by Levan Gabriadze

U.S.A., 2014

Being at the cutting edge of technology in film is a recipe from which filmmakers and audiences alike can reap extraordinary benefits. Be it via the means utilized by the people behind the project to create their motion picture or a fresh idea developed within the story itself that sparks the imagination of an attentive viewer, modern technology (an odd term considering that technology is continuously evolving) can be a powerful tool in storytelling. In other examples filmmakers will adapt new gizmos that have already gained traction in the public sphere to help spruce up their tale. Screenwriter Nelson Greaves and director Levan Gabriadze collaborate on Cybernatural, a movie that puts online Skype conversations, Facebook and instant messaging front and center of a tale of revenge from beyond the grave.

Six friends, Blaire (Shelley Henning), boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), Adam (William Peltz), Jess (Renee Olstead), Val (Courtney Halverson) and Ken (Jacob Wysocki) meet one night over Skype to engage in the sort of conversations teenagers are want to do whenever they exchange banter and gossip online. Today, however, is the 1 year anniversary of the suicide of Laura, a infamous classmate whose bullish behavior earned her a nasty reputation. A compromising video of her at a party was dispersed over the internet, with the trauma of her tarnished image pushing her over the edge. What the six school mates quickly discover is that a seventh person has joined in on their Skype gathering whose mysterious profile name is billie. It is not long before Blaire starts receiving threatening messages from billie Facebook via Laura’s Facebook account. Someone or something is just beginning to hassle the protagonists, something that wants to find out the truth about the pivotal video uploaded a year ago.

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Cybernatural is the sort of movie that titillates with an exciting concept, starts off promisingly by adhering to said concept with acute fidelity, then slowly begins to lose steam by the middle portion and ultimately runs of gas completely by the climax. In the end it feels as though the picture is utterly lost amidst pedestrian attempts to shock and awe that not only overtake the possibility of fulfilling proper character arcs but also fall flat because of the restrictions emanating from the aforementioned high concept, restrictions the filmmakers cannot bypass because of the rigid fidelity to how they want to capture the action on camera. Because the decision was initially made to film the entire affair in a very specific way, completely changing the cinematography style late in the game would be jarring, which is arguably why Cybernatural chooses not to. Then again, the manner in which the viewer is provided the content eventually proves weak in creating scares.

Good movies can be made about any subject imaginable, as can they be made with the intelligent use of all sorts of technology. In the case of Cybernatural the entirety of the picture is depicted via Blaire’s computer screen as she opens and drops windows for Skype, Facebook, her music library and the internet. The idea is certainly attractive, as nothing of the sort has been done before (although some may argue that it is, in truth, a variation of the Paranormal Activity way of showing a story). Those less adept at manipulating such programs may find themselves lost to varying degrees but there’s no question that for most people the visuals are easy to follow. Better still, everything feels very true to life, from Blaire’s savvy computing skills to how the friends interact during the early portions of their Skype conversation. Each sports a distinct if one-dimensional personality, a few of whom are actually quite funny, most notably loud-mouthed pothead Ken. Those familiar with Facebook will be instantly alarmed by the eeriness associated with certain obvious options that suddenly become unavailable as the unseen stalker starts corrupting the system through Blaire’s computer.

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Small moments such as these confidently fulfill their purpose because they don’t require much wizardry on the part of the director. They are easy to create and imaginatively convey the discomforting sense that something is amiss. The problems arise when Cybernatural changes course and follows the more common tropes of modern horror films, namely jump scares involving things that go bump in the night when the lights of one’s room mysterious shut off. The problems are twofold. First is the matter of director Gabriadze renouncing on creativity to supply the audience with the sort of scares that by now frighten fewer and fewer people because of their familiarity. Second, and more importantly, is the fact that there is nary a scene that aims to terrify that looks convincing due to the limited field of vision, itself a product of having every second told through small video Skype windows. Not only does a ‘been there, done that’ vibe afflict the second half, none of it looks remotely cinematic, arguably the bigger problem of the two.

Lest the writing get off the hook, it should be noted that the script commits to a very weird plot device as the maleficent virtual ghost augments the intensity of its threats. At one point the cybernetic vixen forces the teens to play a game that forces each to confess to a horrible deed committed behind another’s back in the recent past, therefore generating strife amongst them. Rather than make the characters more compelling, the result is a collection of selfish misfits whose worth, collectively and individually, lessons. Are their misdemeanours true to how certain teenagers behave in modern society? Sure. Does it make them worth investing one’s emotions into? Not so much. To top it off, why would a ghost who has clearly demonstrated awe inspiring abilities to infiltrate their computers and homes play this game in the first place? If these teenagers are such ne’re do wells and this antagonist so powerful just kill the lot of them already.

Cybernatural suffers an unenviable fate. Movies that take time to find their groove but end strong can be forgiven. Those that carry the potential to do something of interest only to squander that potential in as worrisome a fashion as does Cybernatural make for painfully disappointing experiences. This movie won’t scare anyone away from using Facebook or Skype any time soon.

-Edgar Chaput

Please visit the official website of the Fantasia International Film Festival.


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