Fantasia 2014 Review: CYBERNATURAL

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic
Man, I hate Facebook.

Sure, it's what the cool kids have been using these days, at least until Snapchat started taking over as the dominant way of communicating without your mom seeing. While for us old people it's a great way of stalking your ex or getting baby pics shoved down your feed, I dread to think what my high school experience would have been like with this kind of reciprocal social media. Sure, I'm a Twitter fiend (@filmfest_ca... *cough*), but in many ways that's a broadcast medium, pyrimidal in construction. I can tweet out, and not necessarily read what's coming in.

I like it that way.

Facebook by its very nature is is a two way street, it forces relationships upon its users. You do something to someone in the interconnected chain, and all those within the microcommunity can see the ramifications. When it's good, it's good, when it's hateful, well, the ramifications can be deadly.

Cybernatural takes this notion of reciprocal inter-connectivity to its macabre extreme. Told through a series of online interactions, we witness in real-time the engagement of a bunch of friends, gathered via a Skype session, IM, Youtube and Facebook, discussing among other things the suicide of a friend that was precipitated by a leaked embarrassing video.

The structure of the film echoes a similar short, Noah, that played festivals last year. It's an effective way of telling this kind of story, and while not quite as groundbreaking as it might be for audiences familiar with the previous short, it still does well to keep mood and suspense throughout the running time.

There's only so much one can do with a locked off webcam, and the conceit is hard to sustain for the full running time of the film. Still, writer Nelson Greaves and director Levan Gabriadze do a decent job of creating genuine tension within the almost theatrical, proscenium-like arrangement of the computer screen.

In films like this there are going to be a series of victims, of course, and one thing that the story struggles with is making any of them likable. While you're waiting for the next person to be offed, it becomes a grisly form of of a game show, where you're picking a certain square to contain the victim of revenge.

Demonic possession as spyware has a nice hook, however, and even if I hated all of the characters and didn't mind their slaughter overmuch, I think some audiences will be sucked in to the film's world, feeling tension as certain sequences play out. The story works best when the emotional manipulation peeks, and the writer does manage to find convincing ways of keeping the game going, avoiding the obvious choice of disconnection in order to make things slightly more sane.

If the film plays more as an experiment in concise film making, it's still a generally entertaining one. The histrionics of the cast aside, the film does quite a bit with understatement, and some will enjoy how the filmmakers tease out information in order to create suspense. It's probable that the film would work a bit better in a slightly more concise running time, but this is not unique to this work, and the historical reasons for what's considered a "theatrical" film are of course beyond the scope of this one review.

With an interesting hook and a well executed visual style, there's plenty to admire about Cybernatural. The film may well serve as more yearbook than facebook, a reminder a decade from now of when stuttery video, Emo soundtracks and bubble graphic instant messaging was the communication media of choice for high school students. Who knows, by then there may be a retro rehash like the vinyl craze, where students eschew digital tech for communicating by calligraphic epistles.

With a slew of branded modes of communication, Cybernatural provides not only thrills and scares, but also an interesting look at modern methods of communication and the ramifications of the new normal of always-on social interaction.
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