SCREAMFEST 2021 REVIEW! Anyone who’s played an alternate reality game will speak on the complete uniqueness of the experience, with the more obtrusive and obscure communities boasting diehard fanbases. ARGs are complex narratives spun through several multimedia arenas, often requiring real-world participation to navigate the deeper levels of each mystery. They’ve been employed by creators ranging from anonymous discussion board users to corporate marketing teams and continue to dominate numerous corners of the internet. But inside director Anna Zaytsev’s #Blue_Whale, we discover an ARG directly linked to a brutal series of teenage suicides.
After the public suicide of her younger sister, Dana (Anna Potebnya) finds evidence on her sibling’s electronic devices of a secret online group, #Blue_Whale. After a few attempts via social media, Dana manages to join the group and sets out to discover the reasons for her sister’s death and multiple other teens. It becomes clear that #Blue_Whale is a series of assigned challenges, encouraging the other adolescent participants to ruin their lives, ultimately concluding with their deaths. As Dana reaches for the truth, the game quickly forces her relationships, reputation, and mental state to unravel, with her life and the life of her mother (Yekaterina Stulova) hanging in the balance.
When I first sat down to watch #Blue_Whale, I hadn’t any inclinations that the film was more than another Skype spin on dark web machinations akin to Unfriended. This wasn’t an unreasonable expectation since both titles were produced by Timur Bekmambetov, the director behind Night Watch. But it was surprising to learn that screenwriters Zaytseva, Yevgeniya Bogomyakova, and Olga Klemesheva based their narrative on a real-life, 50-day challenge called Blue Whale.
“…the game quickly forces her relationships, reputation, and mental state to unravel…”
This extreme challenge was first brought to light by Russia’s news cycle in 2015. Since then, it has been referenced in suicide and self-harm cases in over a dozen countries, with worldwide social and legal ramifications being enacted. Numerous people have been arrested for engineering the Blue Whale Challenge, or some semblance of it, but it seems the internet has claimed it for its own, and it’s now seemingly self-propagating.
While the subject provides a powerful petri dish to explore some hefty sociological themes, Zaytseva’s approach makes it a far more visceral experience than a cerebral one. That isn’t to say that #Blue_Whale is overly gory, brimming with jumpscares, or completely devoid of a multilayered narrative. The most notable emphasis is placed on the whip-pans and jostled camerawork of smartphones in the hands of terrified teens, which meshes perfectly with the frenetic editing, equally mirroring the paranoid hyperactivity of a young mind in way over their head. The filmmaker uses the uncertainty of these electronic devices (which involves glitching during video calls and the loss of cellular service when trying to send evidence) in order to drum up real tension, even within the more mundane scenes. Overall, the predictability of its plot is largely offset by the style, buttressed by the surprisingly solid performance by Potebnya.
On the flip side, #Blue_Whale is increasingly burdened by its reliance on style over evolving its mystery so that it ultimately concludes on somewhat cliched ground with its early potential squandered. Several plot twists and narrative devices fall apart under scrutinization, which (of course) includes the typical zoom and enhanced trope when searching through online photographs. The characters accomplish this via “hacking” (in the loosest possible sense) and the discovery of thinly connected urban legend elements which only have a home in vaguely constructed creepypastas.
If different filmmakers had handled #Blue_Whale, its descent into genre platitudes would have sunk the whole experience without much preamble. While I would firmly stop short of calling the film scary (though a handful of evocative moments led to some crawling skin), Zaytseva and her collaborators keep the pacing consistent, and the constant tension keeps viewers engaged.
#Blue_Whale screened at the 2021 Los Angeles Screamfest.
"…keep the pacing consistent, and the constant tension keeps viewers engaged."