Thriller “Chatroom” tries to tap into anxieties about the online activities of contempo teens, but the result is more likely to prompt auds to ROTFL than tremble in their seats. A second stab at feature-making in English after “The Ring 2” for J-horror maestro Hideo Nakata (the “Ringu” trilogy), pic has major bugs in its system, starting with the clunky script by Enda Walsh (based on his legit play) and running through to the cast’s shrill perfs. Nakata’s name and the presence of “Kick-Ass” star Aaron Johnson should help draw unique users initially at B.O., but traffic will be stronger on ancillary.
Pic’s most interesting device, amped up by crafty lensing and production design, is to unfold the story in two worlds: a stage-set virtual realm, which looks like a shabby-chic hotel where the characters meet when they’re online, and a “real” one using mostly London locations, where they actually live and spend most of their time typing on computers or thumbing their phones. Like “The Wizard of Oz,” it’s the imaginary space that’s more brightly colored and intense. In cyberspace, the characters even look and act differently, reflecting the way the medium allows users to improve their real personae.
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It’s in this pseudo-dreamspace that disturbed teenager William (Johnson) sets up a chatroom granting access to four other troubled youngsters: Superficially confident model Eva (Imogen Poots) seethes with self-loathing and envy, mousy Emily (Hannah Murray) secretly hates her pushy parents, working-class Mo (Daniel Kaluuya) is wracked with shameful lust for his best friend’s 11-year-old sister, and terminally shy Jim (Matthew Beard) is a pill-popping wreck still nursing a childhood trauma.
As William manipulates the rest into exposing their deepest secrets and feelings, it gradually becomes clear that his sociopathic tendencies stem from yet another unhappy home. His mother (Megan Dodds) is the filthy-rich author of a “Harry Potter”-like kidlit series, who sowed some kind of pathological inferiority complex by naming her hero after William’s perfect older brother, Ripley (Richard Madden). Out of revenge, William makes stop-frame animated spoofs of the book (far too pro-looking to convince as the work of a lone teen, and deeply unfunny to boot).
Riffing on the ever-increasing volume of news stories about people who’ve committed suicide after being cyber-bullied, Walsh’s script crudely attempts to explore the sinister side of social networking. The problem is that the need for dramatic economy requires William to succeed in his puppetmaster machinations all too quickly to be plausible. One minute the kids are moaning about how their parents don’t understand them, and the next they’re smearing excrement on cars and acquiring guns.
Given that the only onscreen violence is self-inflicted, it would seem helmer Nakata is trying to transition from supernatural horror to psychological thriller. But clearly no one told his regular collaborators, including editor Masahiro Hirakubo and composer Kenji Kawai, because there are still plenty of shock cuts and creepy, scary movie music.
Cast seems similarly at sea, unsure of which level to pitch their perfs, resulting in a lot of irritating squealing to convey enthusiasm. Johnson, whose malleable features allow him to look completely different from one shot to the next, is consistently watchable, at least, as is the very striking Potts.
Production design in general reps one of pic’s strongest suits.