Fantasia Film Review: Blue Whale

Year: 2021
Runtime:  93 minutes
Director: Anna Zaytseva
Writer: Anna Zaytseva, Evgeniya Bogomyakova, Olga Klemesheva
Cast: Anna Potebnya, Timofey Eletskiy, Ekaterina Stulova, Diana Shulmina, Olga Pipchenko, Polina Vataga, Pavel Yulku, Daniil Kiselev

By Harris Dang

Set in present Russia, “Blue Whale” (2021) [also known under the title of #Blue_Whale] tells the story of Dana (Anna Potebnya), an unruly, defiant teenage girl who is going through a period of mourning when her younger sister commits suicide by stepping in front of a moving train. Seeing no rhyme or reason as to why her sister would commit such an act, Dana investigates her life by browsing her internet history, leading her to discover a social media game called “Blue Whale.”

The game consists of undergoing a series of self-harming tasks that goes on for 50 tasks for 50 days. Desperate for revenge over the death of her sister, Dana concocts an undercover identity and registers into the game. But the game is not all fun as Dana dives deep into the dark underworld of online gaming and social media that is so toxic, it will affect her as well as her loved ones and can prove fatal.

“Blue Whale” is the directorial debut of Anna Zaytseva, who is among a line of filmmakers who have worked under producer Timur Bekmambetov, the overseer of Screenlife. Screenlife is a production studio that specializes in cinematic storytelling that takes place entirely on an electronic screen, i.e a computer, tablet or a mobile phone.

Top examples of Screenlife films are “Searching” (2018), “Unfriended” (2014) (and its sequel) and “Profile” (2018). Whilst all those films explored their own particular issues, they all told their stories with a palpable tension of paranoia and immersive investigation. In the case of “Blue Whale,” the inspiration for its story comes from cybercrimes on gaming which actually resulted in numerous deaths. With such inspirations for its story and Bekmambetov on board, will Zaytseva succeed in making a striking directorial debut as well as a stellar Screenlife joint?

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As with all Screenlife joints, the verisimilitude in terms of the technology it is portraying is well done. All the visual designs and sound effects are spot on through programs like Skype, Whatsapp and Facetime. For example, a character would start typing a message and then erase it and change it completely. It is a clever bit of storytelling and it adds much needed character development, whilst also a realistic look at people’s use of technology. There is even some very sly and amusing foreshadowing (especially the funny use of music that Dana listens to), which all adds to the film’s replay value.

Another example is how these characters think they are invincible behind a shield of anonymity, thinking they can get away with their bad deeds. Especially when that shield itself is the veil that covers the court of public opinion, which appears several times when the characters view live broadcasts. But when their secrets are revealed, we know more about the characters. That progression between anonymity and clarity is scary, seeing how it can stem from reality. The film even drives the idea of internet addiction into the tale, not only selling the premise quite well, but also alleviating supposed plot holes.

The performances are well done particularly from Potebnya, who shows a sense of daringness and ferocity to her role making her impulsive and questionable actions feel believable at an emotional level. Credit also goes to Timofey Eletskiy, who plays a companion Dana meets whilst playing the game of “Blue Whale.” He brings an enigmatic presence to the character, making his role of confidant and competitor blurred and compelling.

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The best thing about the film is the frenetic pacing. Not only does it escalate the tension with palpable energy, it also immerses the audience into participation as they remain engaged in focusing on the visual storytelling which thankfully remains light on exposition. It also captures the mindset of the characters considering that the mindset of teenagers is always magnified in terms of emotion as well as papering a lot of the plot/logic holes and the predictable revelation in the climax.

Speaking of plot and logic holes, the logistics of the plot in the film is suspect at best. Without diving into spoilers, character actions are deeply contrived where audiences will be asking questions like, “How did that person end up here on time? How do they still have their phone/computer?” and there will be moments that will have audiences scream at the screen due to their knowledge of technology like the lack of use of a VPN.

Another issue is the execution of the premise. While many will find it fun and entertaining, others will find it exploitative. The benefit of the doubt however is on the relationship between Dana and her mother. Alongside the distance between the mother-daughter relationship thanks to the tragic death, the deeper Dana dives in the game, the more her mother tries to help. But Dana is stuck between a rock and a hard place by abiding with the rules of the game, which brings a huge rift between the two. The relationship is a seemingly minor part of the film but it does add a layer of empathy and heart that makes the ending emotionally satisfying in a contextual fashion.

Overall, “Blue Whale” is another stellar addition in the Screenlife genre thanks to the lightning-speed pacing, effective performances and its verisimilitude to technology that lends the storytelling some much-needed ingenuity. Recommended.

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3.5 stars

“Blue Whale” will be showing at the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival. Click the picture below to explore the festival program.

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