Unfriended (R, 82 min.)

Director: Levan Gabriadze
Writer: Nelson Greaves
Starring: Shelley Hennig, Moses Jacob Storm, Renee Olstead, Will Peltz, Jacob Wysocki
Grade: C+

In the 1870’s, a photographer named Eadweard Muybridge figured out that if he ran a series of infinitesimally differing images in quick succession, he could mimic actual movement. We’ve really just been fine-tuning that technique ever since.

We figured out how to sync sound and color the image. We picked up the camera and started moving, putting it on elaborate tracking rigs and harnesses. Humanity tried its hand at drawing minutely changing pictures and running those instead, to great success. (And Antz.) The found-footage genre blew the fourth wall to smithereens, and in last year’s Goodbye To Language, crafty Frenchman Jean-Luc Godard developed a 3D technique permitting audiences to edit the film by closing one eye or the other.

Unfriended, a techno-tinged horror routine from Levan Gabriadze, doesn’t give the impression that it’s gunning to change the game; the film’s premise — an entire feature as shown through the activity on one character’s laptop screen — is gimmickry at its most shameless. But Gabriadze has stumbled onto a formal experiment with mind-boggling potential. Just as penicillin was discovered by a scientist fooling around with fungus, Gabriadze has happened upon the next huge leap forward for the cinematic form.

At least, he would’ve, if the movie he constructed around it wasn’t so frustratingly stupid. Underneath the nearly unprecedented visual format# lies a moldering pile of clichés that sap the latent genius from the film.

All-American teen Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig) owns the computer that acts as the film’s proscenium, and within the first minutes of the film they both seal their own fates: During a video-chat gone frisky with her squeeze Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), Blaire pumps the brakes and voices her wish to save their magical moment until prom night. Mitch toys with a butcher knife during their Skype sesh while Chekhov rubs his temples just off screen.

The rest of the cast has been dragged-and-dropped into the film from a folder labeled “SLASHER MOVIE STOCK TYPES.” There’s Jess (Renee Olstead), who’s Blonde and Mean. Adam (Will Peltz) plays the requisite Handsome Douche, and Ken (Jacob Wysocki) is Tech-Savvy and Rotund.

On the anniversary of a classmate’s suicide due to a cyberbully’s humiliating video, the five pals log on for a video call. What could be a series of technical malfunctions (and the film creates some great tension through glitches and lags, one of the few things it does well) is actually the malevolent techno-ghost of their late cohort, come to wreak her unholy e-revenge in 128kb per second. Suspense builds at an even pace, but when the time comes for Gabriadze to show his cards and get down to the scares, it’s obvious he’s bluffing. He resorts to cheap jump scares and ludicrous flashes of gore, unable to match the concept’s spirit of novelty.

The total lack of originality in the horror department is made all the more irritating by the exhilarating newness of the laptop format. With a better script behind it, Unfriended could’ve changed the way audiences engage with cinema as a medium. The gimmick might be more well-suited to a low-key drama; with the film unfolding in real time and generally staying static, it can slow to an agonizing crawl. As such, a premise befitting a pace sometimes sliding into agonizing slowness would be a must.

The benefits, however, are practically endless. The multiple windows of the computer screen allow the director to nest frames within frames, rendering cross-cutting or, for that matter, editing itself superfluous. Gabriadze can pack an insane amount of visual information into a single frame. A mere five minutes of following Blaire as she checks up on her search history, browser tabs, and recent iChat conversations establishes character more thoroughly than some films accomplish with 120. Furthermore, the screen of Blaire’s laptop occasionally becomes an extension of her own inner monologue. Gabriadze communicates her mind’s workings as she types sentences and revises them before hitting ‘send,’ editing herself from the person she’d like to be into the person she is, or vice versa. It’s a surprisingly natural method of conveying a character’s interiority; a voice-over that plays during the whole film without being declarative or distracting.

Unfriended is a huge gambit, but it’s too mismanaged to pay the full sum of dividends it could’ve. In the right hands, though, its gimmick could’ve goosed convention in heretofore unimagined ways. Luckily, anyone who hasn’t been living underneath a rock for the past decade knows that when a computer’s malfunctioning, you turn it off and turn it on again. Maybe this laptop-screen business deserves another go, with a surer directorial hand on the mouse.