Hideo Nakata’s techno-thriller ‘Chatroom’ is an interesting, if irresponsible curiosity
A review of the 2010 horror film, streaming now on Amazon Prime and Shudder
Warning: this review contains frank discussion of the film’s depiction of self-harm and suicide.
Almost every single main cast member in the 2010 techno-thriller Chatroom has gone on to bigger and better things, including, for many of them, Game of Thrones. This film has Catlin Stark (Michelle Fairley), Robb Stark (Richard Madden), Gilly (Hannah Murray), and Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson), although none of them ever share a scene, along with a pre-Black Mirror Daniel Kaluuya, a month-post-Kick Ass Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a young I’m-not-actually-sure-what-she’s-known-for-except-her-incredible-name Imogen Poots, and a pre-late-period-Wachowskis-regular Tuppence Middleton. If nothing else, it’s interesting to see all these recognizable people together and looking so young.
It’s also interesting as a relatively early example of social media horror in the vein of Unfriended, Friend Request, etc. Social media was really taking off in 2010, and chatrooms were well on their way out, so the movie feels doubly-dated; it’s old now, but you can tell that even upon release, it might have made more sense even five years earlier. I’m not really sure teens were still meeting up in chatrooms in 2010. However, it’s still quaint enough that it adds a fun little layer to its techno-concerns.
Unlike your Unfriendeds or Friend Requests, though, director Hideo Nakata here makes the interesting stylistic choice to depict online spaces as physical ones; when the characters are in the titular chatroom together, we see them all sitting in a real room talking, rather than showing everything as text on a screen and having most of the movie be people staring at their laptops and phones. It’s a bold decision that I thought really worked, and when I saw the credit that said the screenplay was written by Enda Walsh and “based on his play,” I was not surprised.
The specific subject matter, on the other hand, is where the movie kind of loses me. It’s about a group of teens who meet online in a chatroom called “Chelsea Teens!,” created by Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s charismatic William. Online, he’s fast-talking, fun and friendly, and he gathers a group of five friends who meet regularly to chat about life. Offline, though, he’s depressed and moody, resentful of his famous mother and the brother who inspired her bestselling kids’ book series. The “friends” he’s found online all turn out to be easily manipulable, and he sets about brainwashing them into lashing out, encouraging their self-destructive behaviors like going off their meds or splashing paint on their parents’ house. Imogen Poots’ character Eva seems at first enamored with William, loving his devil-may-care attitude about teenage rebellion, but she soon becomes suspicious that he has darker intentions than the group initially realized.
The film’s central thesis seems to be that the internet brings out the worst in people and that mostly it’s a lawless space where people can be horrifically cruel to one another. That’s certainly true, and it’s a view of the internet that’s only become more and more relevant in the near-decade since this movie’s release. That being said, the movie is ultimately about suicide, and about how “you should kill yourself!”-style online bullying leads to kids taking their own lives. It’s definitely a worthy subject for a cautionary tale. It’s what the first Unfriended is about, after all, and HBO just released I Love You, Now Die a few weeks ago, about a girl who convinced her boyfriend to kill himself online.
However: Chatroom was directed by the guy who directed The Ring, and it displays a similar fascination with filmic objects driving people to their deaths. William is particularly obsessed with watching and sharing videos of people committing suicide online, and we see these memetic objects spreading and causing damage among the online friend group. The VHS tape in The Ring was a meme, too — the only way to survive the curse was to spread the video further by making a copy — and Nakato is working with similar mechanisms here, only made more explicit. By spreading videos of a suicide to people who he can push to kill themselves, William thinks he’s saving himself.
It all feels a bit irresponsible. I tend to resist “watching violent things makes kids do violent things” arguments, because on the whole, that’s ridiculous. But it’s commonly-accepted that there is this type of effect for suicides. If the point of Chatroom is that watching such videos online can warp impressionable kids into wanting to kill themselves for the social media attention… Shouldn’t we also feel that watching them over and over in a horror movie may have a similar effect?
To put it another way: I know watching the videotape in The Ring isn’t going to make a dead girl crawl out of my TV, but it’s thrillingly fun to imagine the what-if. In Chatroom, on the other hand, it’s all too easy and not so fun to imagine that repeatedly watching an eerie clip of a girl jumping gracefully out a window may make some depressed kid out there want to recreate what she sees.
And that’s not even getting into the fact that Daniel Kaluuya’s character Mo is fully a pedophile! The other characters’ exploitable situations include “being resentful of a social-climbing mother who makes her take etiquette classes” and “being jealous of a fellow model,” but Mo’s quirky trait that William turns against him is “being a 17 year old who’s madly in love with his best friend’s 11-year old sister.” Yikes! We’re supposed to feel sorry for him because he follows William’s advice and tells his friend, and it doesn’t go well? His friend needs to know, so he can keep his sister away from this creep who’s always gawking at her while she does gymnastics! I mean…!
Overall, while Chatroom is well-written, well-acted, and interestingly-staged, I can’t really “recommend” it due to how irresponsibly the subject matter is handled. Perhaps it’s better if this one stays on the low end of streaming services’ recommendation algorithms and doesn’t spread too far. (Why did I write this?)