Movie Review: “Disconnect”

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The year is 2013 and evil is alive and well. And according to the new cyberdrama

"Disconnect" movie poster

That’s Jason Bateman “looking up” at us, by the way. Or should I say, BTW.

 “Disconnect,” the source of this seething seed of boundless malevolence is staring back at you as you read this.

Right now, as we speak.

Just in case you haven’t figured it out yet – it’s your computer.

Back in 1984, James Cameron created a world where the vast computer network known as Skynet became sentient, or self-aware, and decided to destroy the human race. In Cameron’s film “The Terminator,” human nature’s apocalyptic demise included nuclear bombs, cyborg killing machines with giant biceps and Austrian accents, and eventually mercury-based changelings with super-serious demeanors.

In 1999, the Wachowski Brothers gave us techno-existentialism in the form of Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne and millions of black suit-wearing Hugo Weavings. In that version of humanity’s end, computers – again – became self-aware and turned us into Duracell batteries. In order to keep us from fighting back, they created a computer program for us – based on what we view as reality – and they called it “The Matrix.”

Now, fast-forward to 2013, and director Henry Alex Rubin (of “Murderball” fame) and screenwriter Andrew Stern have created another world where computers have completely taken over the world and successfully seeped into every crevice and crack that exists within the foundations of society.

The common theme that exists between these movies (along with every “man vs. technology” tale, from “The Legend of John Henry” to “Tron”) is pretty basic, really. The creators of these tales have envisioned the eventual demise of all mankind stemming from our reliance on machines to live our lives for us. This “life-living” includes such aspects as our social lives, our business agendas, and our romantic endeavors. “Disconnect” covers all of these themes and covers them well, I may add.

From the first minutes of the film, the technology-heavy theme of the film is catapulted towards us with the force of a vacuous “tweet” from Kim Kardashian or Lindsay Lohan. In fact, some of the first images of the film are that of somebody glaring into a computer screen. Rubin and Stern do not shy away from the fact that they believe people are “logging on” a little too much these days – and, in turn, people are paying a terrible price to do so. “Disconnect” attempts to tackle three very prominent problems that stem from the overuse of today’s technology: cyber bullying, identity theft, and underage porn.

These three subjects are woven together in refreshing, masterful fashion and (thank the lord!) the messages behind the stories never becomes too preachy or suffocating for the viewer. Each character is handled with the utmost care and respect. During the entire two-plus hours of “Disconnect,” I can honestly say, there wasn’t one time where I found a character or storyline too cardboard or contrived.

Another positive aspect of Stern’s screenplay was the fact that he chose not to waste a whole lot of time on character back story. Now, in no way am I saying that character back story in films is a waste of time, in general. I’m simply stating that in this particular film – in which the motive of every player exists in the techno-heavy, here-and-now world – back story would be a distraction.

That being said, distraction is the name of the game within the realm of this extremely heavy drama. It’s what exists within the core of this film – hence the name on the poster. The characters are so busy paying attention to the sometimes-nameless, sometimes-faceless, sometimes-soulless entities that occupy the laptops and smart phones that their eyeballs and fingertips are consistently glued to, that they never notice the living, breathing, warm-blooded individuals that exist right next to them. Again, the theme of the film is practically screamed in your direction – the more we connect, the more disconnected we become.

Despite its underlying (and sometimes right at the surface) social and 

Frank Grillo, Paula Patton, and Alexander Skarsgard in a scene from the new film "Disconnect."

Yeah… uhhh… somebody hacked your account and stole all your money. Any questions? No? That’ll be $500 – cash only. Thank you.

psychological themes, there is a great deal of coherent and engrossing action that permeates the screen, as well. In the first of the entwined storylines, we have a married couple – Cindy and Derek Hull (played by Paula Patton of “Precious” and True Blood‘s Alexander Skarsgard) – who find themselves slowly drifting apart, due to a tragedy involving the sudden death of their child. Derek – a veteran of The Gulf War – chooses to deal with his pain by working long hours, while Cindy has chosen to find solace within the confines of chat rooms for grieving victims of tragic events. In fact, Cindy has seemingly gotten a little too friendly with one of the grieving husbands on the site and looks as if she’s headed in the direction of adultery when she agrees to meet the sad, cyber gentleman – of course – unbeknownst to the unaffectionate and never-there Derek.

Cindy never does get the chance to cheat on her husband, however. Instead, the couple finds out that somebody has been draining their bank account. After the couple hires a private internet-based detective (played the criminally-underrated Frank Grillo of the criminally-underrated “The Grey”) to uncover the source, which of course is linked back to that website for grief-stricken souls that Cindy has been frequenting. To make the plot even thicker – the culprit seems to be the very person that she was planning to meet behind her husband’s back. Even though the couple has found the source of their financial problems, nothing can be done from a legal standpoint. Basically, the detective tells them that he needs to find more proof and they need to be more patient. Frustrated, the two decide to hit the road and seek out the thieving bastard themselves. Road trip!

Meanwhile, the second story (which is the weakest, as far as I’m concerned) is about Nina Dunham – a curious and success-hungry journalist played by Andrea Riseborough – who stumbles across a website that features young, good-looking boys and girls who talk dirty and get naked in front of a webcam, while lonely people leer at them. Needless to say, these youngsters don’t do this for free. Money and gifts are freely offered to them, which sometimes occurs within the friendly confines of a “private chat room.” The inquisitive (and apparently horny) Nina soon sniffs out a story in the form of the chiseled “golden boy” Kyle (played by “Bates Motel”s Max Theriot), as she decides to form a relationship with him in order to formulate a story involving this seedy world.

This plotline starts out with great potential, but fizzles out very fast. In fact, it eventually becomes extremely uncomfortable to watch, as you’re just not sure what Nina’s motives are. Is she using this poor, unloved kid? Should I even care ABOUT this poor, unloved kid? Wait a minute – is this kid even poor and unloved to begin with? Actually, THIS story could have used a smidge of back story – if only to make the viewer sympathize with the plight of Kyle a little bit more.

Nina’s character, on the other hand, turns out to be a little too contradictory for my tastes. Her primary intentions – as to why she was on the site to begin with – were left a mystery, which I liked. However, her character’s moral compass is reset so many times, I found her extremely unsympathetic, as well. By the time the whole thing plays, you really don’t care about either one of them. Therefore, all of the dramatic tension that Rubin tries to create within the film’s final act becomes completely pointless. That is, involving this particular story at least. It almost single-handedly brings down the integrity of the film in the process.

Thankfully, the film is saved by the third storyline.

This storyline is the most poignant and effective. To be fair, it does feature topics that the public is naturally and currently enamored with. It includes the whole Manti Te’o/“catfishing” epidemic. It also has that whole “cyber bullying” thing in it. Plus, it deals with teenage angst, while tackling the questions of why and how young people do the things they do. In this particular version of the social network horror story – two, bored teen-pranksters decide to target a shy, awkward classmate of theirs on Facebook. The two create a fake profile of a pretty girl named Jessica Rhony (get it? It’s an anagram of “horny”) and pretend to be interested in the shy teen. Things eventually go awry and go too far, drastic measures are taken, tragic events occur, and consequences become all-too real – all-too quickly.

This story features star-making turns by young actors Jonah Bobo (as the 

Jonah Bobo takes a break from his tunes in the new film "Disconnect."

Nice headphones. Teen Angst!!

isolated and tortured-teen Ben Boyd) and Colin Ford (as the cyber terrorizing-teen Jason Dixon). These two have a great deal of emotion-riddled scenes to handle and they expertly drive them on a consistent basis. Another actor, whose performance that I was pleasantly surprised by was Jason Bateman – yes, that Jason Bateman – who plays Ben’s confused father. To be honest, I didn’t think he had the ability to play the straight, dramatic role, but Bateman does an admirable job with the serious tone. Especially effective are the scenes that he has with Ford (well, kind of) – in which he attempts to look for answers by having a cyber chat with who he thinks is his son’s friend Jessica, but, in actuality, is his son’s enemy. It’s pretty powerful stuff and it’s presented in a commanding, original way by director Rubin.

Without spoiling anything, all three plots converge and collapse within one another, until it’s hard to figure out where one world ends and the other begins. I guess that’s the intention of this movie. It presents a landscape in which everybody exists on the same plane – inadvertently popping in and out of each other’s narratives, yet nobody even notices if they stay or if they go.

Again, I hope I’m not spoiling anything, but in the end, the characters can’t move forward until they cut ties with the technology-based strings that hold them back. Usually, I watch a film and have fun while I view it. Not so much with this film.

Disclaimer: This is not a fun film. This is not a film that is instantly forgettable, pointless, and vague. This is not a film filled with whimsical humor or fantasy-laden landscapes or cookie-cutter, carbon copies. No, this film is real. This film represents real life. This film WILL make you think. I guarantee that this film – aside from a few mistakes with the character’s motivations in the second story – will stick with you long after you leave the theater.

This film will affect you in some way.

That is, if you can shut out the evil permeating from your phone or your iPad long enough for you to let it.

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