Fantasia presents #Blue_Whale; book festival tickets here.
On 22 November 2015, a teenage girl from south-east Russia posted one last selfie online before taking her own life. Her tragic suicide soon became the subject of comment and analysis in online blogs. Within these blogs and chatrooms, many teenagers began to lace gossip, opinion and stories into a toxic tapestry of fact and fiction. Here, the reality was kept firmly at bay as stories were embellished and new realities built. A few weeks later, a 12-year-old Russian girl would also take her life on Christmas Day, followed by another teenager living in the same city.
News media quickly sought to establish links between these tragedies, and it wasn’t long before all three girls were found to have accessed the same online forums and groups. These groups mentioned the blue whale, while at the same time, parents allegedly found pictures of blue whales on the girl’s laptops. Was this blue whale link a clue? And did the blue whale image harbour a deadly secret that led the girls to commit suicide?
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May 2016 would see theories previously held within internet blogs publicly exposed as investigative journalist Galina Mursalieva published an article in the Novaya Gazeta. The Gazeta introduced the world to a new idea: it spoke of online killers targeting children in sadistic self-harm games. Their vicious games ensnared vulnerable kids through tasks that eventually led to self-harm and suicide. But, the Gazeta went even further, reporting that these games involving the blue whale hashtag could have led to over 130 deaths among young people worldwide.
Soon after, the world started talking about the deadly ‘Blue Whale Game‘; the game became laced with social fears of paedophilia and online predators. This panic would only increase following the suicide of a 16-year-old girl in the United States and several more tragic deaths worldwide. However, much of this panic and fear was rooted in hearsay, with adults keen to find a stereotypical online predator. But most of the message boards, chatrooms, and blogs linked to the suicides were led by kids.
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So did the ‘Blue Whale Game‘ ever really exist? Or was it an urban legend born from a flawed piece of investigative journalism? We may never know the exact truth, but it is clear the concept of the ‘Blue Whale Game‘ developed a life of its own in many online communities, ultimately leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy as the game found a voice in the online world. Here the devastating deaths of those teenagers were linked to the ‘game’ and forever misunderstood and misrepresented as society looked for easy answers.
Considering the social and psychological complexity of the above, here’s a question: how do you bring the blue whale story to the cinema screen? Do you opt for a Scream-inspired popcorn horror? Or do you delve into social psychology and online adolescent mental health? Russian director Anna Zaytseva tries to balance both, but does it work?
To answer this question, let us start by exploring the popcorn horror at the heart of #Blue_Whale. Produced by Timur Bekmambetov (Searching and Unfriended), #Blue_Whale is rooted in a tried and tested screentime format. Like many of its predecessors, there is no denying its power as we enter a tangled web of messages, photos, texts and social media posts with each click and conversation, further expanding the horror of the game as we dive into the darkness of modern tech. But there is also an uncomfortable absence of social discussion at play.
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Following the sudden suicide of her younger sister, Dana (Anna Potebnya) searches for answers on her sister’s computer. But, what Dana finds shakes her to her core; her younger sister was part of a deadly online game called #Blue_Whale. Dana is determined to hunt down those responsible, joining the game despite the dangers it holds. But, as she embarks on the deadly challenges, she meets a fellow game player who appears to support her hunt for the truth. Together, they embark on an investigation where the line between hunter and prey threatens Dana’s family, her life and her newfound love. As a teen slasher, #Blue_Whale excels, its nerve-shredding tension creating a rabbit hole of no escape. But, #Blue_Whale also has a more profound responsibility, one held within the story it aims to reflect, and here it ultimately fails.
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The blue whale phenomenon highlighted the hidden, secretive worlds young people access online and the power these can hold over them. These worlds are often curated and controlled by other young people who merge fantasy, fiction and reality into a toxic concoction, playing with the darkest teenage emotions and feelings. For many teenagers, these hidden online worlds are no more than a passing interest, an act of curiosity as they explore the online world around them; however, for others, these worlds become dangerous support structures.
#Blue_Whale attempts to explore this as the game is uncovered. Equally, it attempts to unravel the social media world young people now find themselves a part of from birth, their friendships, relationships, likes and dislikes at risk of broader public consumption. While, at times, #Blue_Whale successfully reflects the power and influence of the online world, it ultimately opts for popcorn horror over psychology. As a result, #Blue_Whale leaves behind a somewhat sour taste, with a narrative of limited social commentary.