CW: suicide, self harm
#Blue_Whale is the most recent “screenlife” film from producer Timur Bekmambetov (perhaps best known as the director of Wanted, yeah the one with the curving bullets) who has seemingly made it his mission to make the subgenre flourish for the last few years. Bekmambetov produced both Unfriended films and the John Cho starring Searching, and it’s clear that #Blue_Whale co-writer/director Anna Zaytseva learned from all of these.
#Blue_Whale hits the ground running with an introduction to sisters Dana (Anna Potebnya) and her younger sibling who have, at the very least, a strained relationship before jumping ahead a few months when Dana watches a video of her sister slowly and deliberately walk into the path of a moving train. It’s a startling sequence and one that either immediately pulls you in or lets you know to get out.
After her sister’s death, Dana begins to investigate an online social media game called Blue Whale, based on the real (or maybe not?) Blue Whale Challenge that is believed to have led over 100 young people around the world to commit suicide. The game involves anonymous “curators” who give participants increasingly isolating and dangerous tasks, like betraying your closest friend and running through traffic. Dana manages to find her way into one of these games so that she can discover who is responsible for her sister’s death, and hopefully bring them to justice.
The idea of going undercover with a group that harmed a loved one isn’t particularly new within genre storytelling, but #Blue_Whale’s online world is disturbingly believable (which makes sense given that it may well be based in fact). And the way that the tasks escalate and the curators are able to know when Dana is trying to trick them, makes the entire thing a riveting experience. Some sequences strain credulity, but overall the film’s driving mystery, the feeling of impending fatal violence, and the credibility of the concept make those issues less relevant. It also helps that Potebnya is thoroughly committed to her performance here, and while she may not be the most technically perfect actor, she makes every scene emotionally real.
The fact that the mystery is sustained for most of the film also plays to screenlife’s strengths as a subgenre. The Unfriended films are at their best in the first halves when the groups of friends are uncertain as to what is happening and devolve into less interesting screaming into webcams once those mysteries have been solved. So the fact that Zaytseva draws out the mystery of who is running these games and why they are seeking to push teens to take their own lives, without ever letting things get too purely intellectual by including a visceral horror sequences throughout makes #Blue_Whale an engaging and unsettling watch for nearly all of its runtime. Sadly the reveal of who is behind the game is a bit unsatisfying, but that doesn’t negate that the film is an edge of your seat thrill ride up to that point.
On the formal side, the most interesting aspect here is that Zaytseva moves the camera around the screen, as opposed to the more straightforward “here is the screen you will be looking at for the runtime.” I’m not sure that this decision works better than the full runtime full-screen option, as it does draw attention to itself in a way that can remove you from the found footage style verisimilitude, but it does allow her to build tension by hiding things on screen, and make some of the horror sequences more chaotic.
It’s certainly not perfect, but based on its effectiveness alone #Blue_Whale is one of the best entries in the screenlife subgenre I have seen thus far, and the fact that it seeks to address a real issue only makes it a stronger film.
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