Friend Request feels like it’s grasping at a modern niche and dressing it in used clothing. Director Simon Verhoeven’s film might have a contemporary sheen but ultimately feels old hat.
Friend Request is a product of our fascination (and obsession) with social media. However, while its contemporary sheen shines right now, it won’t last. The connected world we inhabit online is here to stay but the platform by which we socialise will continue to evolve. Director Simon Verhoeven’s film hasn’t got the luxury of being able to transform itself to the current social media trends and so will ultimately feel increasingly trite down the line.
Its tedious plotting and regurgitated themes are not enlivened by the presence of Facebook (or the film’s version of it) and so what could have been an engaging thriller about online stalking turns out to be a painstaking wait for an inevitable twist. To further the disappointment, the finale is a complete dud. The irony of checking my Twitter feed during the last twenty minutes was not lost on me.
I must put Friend Request into context. Warner Bros saw something in Verhoeven’s film to take on the European distribution rights after the German-funded film made its debut at the beginning of 2016. You can see their thinking as the film taps into a phenomenon that has international relevance and widespread appeal.
Yet, Blumhouse beat Friend Request to the punch with 2014’s Unfriended, a far more enjoyable film based on a similar premise. While Leo Gabriadze’s effort – which incorporated the found footage style and applied it to a first-person perspective of various social media applications including Skype – enjoyed a similarly tried-and-trusted narrative structure, it challenged itself to remain within the constraints of a computer screen. That made it far more interesting. In comparison, Friend Request feels like it’s grasping at a modern niche and dressing it in used clothing.
The similarities are clear. A recently deceased person – in both cases, a dead girl – comes back to life through social media to stalk those she feels have done her harm. It’s a classic revenge motif seen regularly in the slasher film. In Friend Request, popular college student Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey) befriends new girl Marina (Liesl Ahlers) on Facebook (although the popular social network is never specifically mentioned, the platform featured here is clearly meant to mimic it). They’ve never spoken but Laura thinks Marina’s art, which she displays on her profile, shows talent. They meet at college for a chat and, despite Marina having no other acquaintances and an indifference to everyone but Laura, they become friends. But quite quickly Marina becomes possessive, and after Laura disinvites her to a party, lying about it being just her and her boyfriend despite group photos appearing – inevitably – online, Marina gets mad and commits suicide.
If it sounds far-fetched it’s because it is. But that’s only the start. A possessed Facebook doesn’t live by conventional rules. Why would it? There’s definitely interesting aspects to this interpretation of stalk and slash, particularly the unpredictability of the antagonist’s villainous deeds. I liked the underlying themes of online exploitation – “did you see the video of the girl killing herself in front of her webcam” – and how it can create social media buzz. It’s also interesting to see how, when the deaths of her friends also crop up as videos on Laura’s timeline, her social media following decreases. The popular, good-looking girl losing her status.
But there’s too many things that don’t work. Not least the inept detectives who have an inability to understand, or investigate, someone’s social media output and the fact an account has effectively been hacked by a rogue, anonymous user. There’s also a distinct lack of humour throughout the film which is only disturbed by a very inappropriate, and damningly unfunny, aside between the two detectives after one of Laura’s roommates seemingly commits suicide in front of them.
By the film’s second half I was also put off by the realisation I was watching a retread of The Ring, the possessed videotape swapped for a haunted laptop, with a helping of Final Destination. There’s the protagonist’s investigation into the dead girl’s past, a mystery to solve in order to stop the inevitable, and a mysterious backstory that, while being somewhat unnerving, makes the initial meeting of Laura and Marina even less likely.
Once the sense of ambiguity loses its enigmatic qualities and people start dropping dead across campus, Friend Request feels far too routine and as a result severely drags its feet. Alycia Debnam-Carey is a likable lead and her plight as Laura does attract our sympathies but the film’s artificiality leaves you cold, a handful of jump scares the only odd moments to get the adrenaline pumping.
Written by Dan Stephens
Top 10 Films reviewed Friend Request on Blu-ray courtesy of Warner Home Video which released the film on DVD and Blu-ray September 19, 2016.