Movies haven’t always had the best record of depicting the rise of Internet and modern screen culture. For a technological shift that’s fundamentally altered how we communicate, how we lead our lives, its presence on the big screen has typically been little more than perfunctory references to “going viral” or kids who “be on that phone.”
With Searching joining a micro-genre of horror movies, like Unfriended and Profile, that unfold predominantly on phone and computer screens, it seems that the medium is finally starting to embrace the dramatic potential of how we live through these devices. Here are the five movies that got it right.
A Videodrome for the early Internet age, Olivier Assayas’s impervious 2002 cyberpunk thriller dives into the Internet’s seedier corners through the cold and alienating lens of late capitalist corporate culture.
Demonlover starts as a thriller, with a team of ruthless women executives from rival media companies, led by Diane (Connie Nielsen), scheming to take control of a new, lucrative form of interactive 3D hentai. The executives trade in all sort of graphic content, including sexual torture and other ultraviolence, pausing only to consider the logistical question of whether or not what they’re doing is necessarily legal. They have been fully desensitized to the extreme images upon which they’re trading; tentacle porn or live sexual torture hardly trigger a response.
As Demonlover breaks down deeper into hell, its narrative structure into chaos, Diane ultimately falls captive to the digital environment she’s helped create. Various corporate schemes force Diane into the Hellfire Club, an interactive torture site that allows clients to act out their most depraved sadomasochistic fantasies in real time.
The film’s final scene depicts an ordinary teenage boy signing up for the site at home. Diane looks up from the computer screen, helpless, as the boy inserts his fantasies onto the site while doing science homework.
Demonlover explores just how desensitized we’ve become to graphic violent and sexual content online, as well as how much of what’s allowed on social media platforms—user tracking, flagrantly misleading or “fake” news, tepid responses to reports of targeted harassment—can push the limits of what’s deemed legal or in good taste. Demonlover, in turn, often demonstrates a relatively short supply of good taste, but its extreme approach and ending are fitting for the tech skeptic in all of us.
Also from Assayas, this slippery, genre-hopping ghost story draws its suspense from the spectral experience of communicating via phone screen, particularly in its tense and fascinatingly enigmatic 15-minute sequence, which finds star Kristen Stewart alone, with only an iPhone as her screen partner.
Maureen (Stewart) is on a train to London, where, while en route to pick up clothes for her client, she receives a series of strange messages from an unknown number:
I know you
And you know me
You’re off to London
Maureen, grieving the recent loss of her twin brother Lewis, and who, like her late brother, is also a medium, suspects that this might be the sign that she’s been waiting for from her late brother. She replies:
R u alive or dead ?
Alive or dead ??
Personal Shopper provides no definitive answers about the secret texter’s identity, but his (its?) presence captures the menacing nature of this medium.
The texts get increasingly flirty, and possibly threatening, too. “I’m here, I’m watching you,” the texter says at one point after Maureen moves on the train. Its only presence is the buzz of her phone with each new message, and those infamous iMessage typing bubbles filling the spaces in between. Here, Personal Shopper can’t quite uncover the phantom behind the screen.
Matt Spicer’s Instagram influencer satire sometimes falls into the easy trap of Black Mirror’s “what if phones, but too much” handling of the dark side of social media fame, but its final twist sharply addresses how social media’s endless appetite for shock and its clickbait economy can bring aspiring influencers to commodify self-destructive, or just plain destructive, behavior for the sake of engagement.
Ingrid Goes West follows Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza), a mentally ill young woman from Pennsylvania who decides to use her dead mother’s $60,000 inheritance to move to California in hopes of befriending Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), an Instagram influencer who she’s convinced has the perfect existence. Ingrid transforms herself into someone who might appeal to Taylor, who, naturally, leads a messier life than her social media feeds would suggest, and rejects Ingrid when she learns of her deception. Rejected by her idol, Ingrid posts a final Instagram video in which she admits to suicidal thoughts before making an attempt on her life. The video goes viral, starting the hashtag #iamingrid, and we close on Ingrid’s smiling face lit by her phone screen. She’s finally achieved the Instagram fame she wanted.
Not nearly to suggest that all people who openly discuss mental illness and trauma on social media are doing such for attention, but this scene highlights the incentives that exist for such shows of self-exhibition.
The infamous xoJane “It Happened to Me” column, for instance, would often select young writers who confessed to increasingly traumatic, selfish, shameless or otherwise shocking experiences. More recently, various personalities, from Alex Jones to the Paul brothers, have been able to sustain careers trading off their noxious brands until they finally take it too far for the platforms to comfortably tolerate. The metrics of social media fame don’t always account for responsible decision-making.
For a film that’s so concerned with spaces—how they’re regulated by arbitrary codes of polite society and codified through social class—Ruben Östlund’s art world satire finds some of its sharpest targets in the more amorphous online sphere.
Christian (Claes Bang), the curator at a Stockholm art museum, is asked to promote an upcoming exhibit called The Square, an illuminated square placed outside the museum in which all people must share “equal rights and obligations.”
The ad agency hired to promote the exhibit, however, has more sensational ideas in mind on how to get traffic. “Your competition isn’t other museums; it’s disasters, terrorism and controversial moves by far-right politicians,” says one of the agency’s spokespeople. The most shared videos on Facebook deal with the suffering of vulnerable people—most significantly, beggars and the homeless—says the other.
They pitch a video campaign in which a poor, white girl blows up inside The Square, highlighting its values by showing “the total opposite of everything The Square stands for.” Christian, in a rush, agrees to the ill-advised campaign. Later in the film, the campaign’s inevitably poor reception loses Christian his job.
Östlund, a sharp observer of social etiquette, highlights the razor’s-edge balance between provocation, offense and trolling that artists and marketers need to find in online culture. Consider, say, the glowing response for Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” video versus that of that infamous Kendall Jenner-starring Pepsi ad attempting to deal with similar protest movements, facing massive backlash. By playing the game of online virality, you risk losing it all.
Early YouTube star-turned-old media comedian Bo Burnham’s directorial debut might be one of the least judgmental depictions of Gen Z social media oversaturation to date. The life of Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), in her last week of eighth grade, is drenched in the stuff. Kayla and her fellow middle schoolers seem perfectly at ease in this world.
Though by virtue of being in eighth grade, of course, Kayla is never entirely at ease with herself. And so, in Eighth Grade, the screen is a space in which young people like Kayla are constantly made aware of how deeply they’re scrutinized from the outside. Kayla records blandly motivational videos about self-confidence on YouTube for an audience of no one in particular on a subject about which she knows little. She can’t help overthinking how to respond to a popular girl’s Instagram DM, and poses and filters even the most tossed-off of Snapchats.
Kayla’s phone screen is a fraught space, but also one that allows her escape. One of Eighth Grade’s standout scenes mostly escapes the film’s pervasive middle school social anxiety. We find Kayla amidst a late-night Internet rabbit hole after a tense dinner with her dad, who’s well-meaning and patient but not entirely equipped for the task of raising a middle-school girl by himself. With Enya’s meditative “Orinoco Flow” playing, Kayla’s face backlit by iPhone screen, we glimpse into the digital landscape in which she spends most of her time: K-pop videos, Jimmy Fallon sketches, her favorite celebrities’ and friends’ social media feeds all rolled into one aspirational package. Pretty soon, Kayla will have an upsetting first encounter with boys, and she will finally need to have a meaningful heart-to-heart with her father about her problems. But for now, Kayla is fine not feeling much, letting her phone take control.