“Ringu” director Hideo Nakata returns for his second English language effort (following his disastrous 2002 “The Ring Two”) with “Chatroom”, a thriller investigating the darker side of online friend making. A UK production shot in and around London, the film has a hip, fresh faced young cast headlined by “Kick-Ass” himself, Aaron Johnson, with support from Brit hopefuls Imogen Poots (recently in Neil Marshall’s “Centurion” and soon to be seen in the upcoming “Fright Night” remake), Hannah Murray (from the television series “Skins”) and Matthew Beard (“An Education”). The film was written and based upon the play by Enda Walsh, recently nominated for several awards for the “Hunger” script in 2008.
The film revolves around Johnson as William, an obviously troubled young man who starts up a chatroom called Chelsea Teens! (the exclamation mark is apparently important), and soon attracts a handful of new online friends. Winning them over with his charming internet persona, he gains their trust and gradually finds out their secrets and darkest fears, for the express purpose of turning them against each other and encouraging them to do bad things back in the real world.
Although understandable, given that Hideo Nakata is always likely to be best known for “Ringu”, it’s unfortunate that “Chatroom” is being sold as some kind of horror outing, with a “Scream” style poster and ads suggesting supernatural malevolence. This definitely does the film a disservice, as anyone expecting thrills or genre excitement will probably end up feeling let down, with the film being a fairly non-sensationalist exploration of teen meanness. This in itself is pretty much in-keeping with much of Nakata’s body of work, with most of his films revolving around a fascination with the coldness and perversity of human behaviour. On these grounds it works well enough, and it’s commendable that the director chose to tackle something a little more interesting for his latest stab at the western market than an easy money slasher. The film is tightly plotted, and gets increasingly dark and tense whilst keeping things grounded and believable, right though to its inevitably downbeat conclusion. Benefitting from a solid, earnest script, it manages a few surprises along the way, and does at least attempt to buck the usual teen movie trends and clichés.
Sadly, this is also the film’s greatest weakness, as by playing things entirely straight Nakata neglects to inject any real sense of urgency into the proceedings, with very little of note happening. Although the film does hold the interest and is never actually dull, the cruelties and deceptions never really shock or surprise, with far worse or more colourful being reported in the news on a daily basis. In this respect, despite having a broad and vaguely creditable view on teen problems such as bullying, depression, anger and self harming, the film never shakes the impression of being seen from the point of view of a concerned parent who doesn’t quite get it. This is furthered by the film’s outdated use of technology, and though Nakata puts a great deal of effort into bringing the whole chatroom and virtual world concept to life, even this comes across as a ham-fisted stab at being hip and down with the kids. This isn’t helped by its use of old fashioned chatrooms instead of social networking sites or their likes, and again this makes it hard to figure the best audience for the film, being neither really suited for younger or older viewers.
All of this is perhaps a bit harsh, as it’s clear that Nakata isn’t really too bothered with technology or the details, using them primarily as a vehicle for illustrating destructive behaviour, and in that context the concept does serve its purpose. Certainly, “Chatroom” is interesting and perfectly acceptable as a social commentary themed psychological thriller, well directed and featuring decent production values and performances. Although sure to disappoint horror fans or anyone looking for a truly cutting edge slice of zeitgeist friendly unpleasantness, it doesn’t do any damage to Nakata’s reputation, and keeps hope alive that he’ll again find the form that made his early films so memorable.
Hideo Nakata (director) / Enda Walsh (play), Enda Walsh (screenplay)
CAST: Aaron Johnson … William
Imogen Poots … Eva
Matthew Beard … Jim
Hannah Murray … Emily
Daniel Kaluuya … Mo
Megan Dodds … Grace
Michelle Fairley … Rosie
Nicholas Gleaves … Paul