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 found itself the subject of comment and analysis in a series of online blogs. Within these blogs and chatrooms, many teenagers began to lace gossip, opinion and stories together into a toxic tapestry of fact and fiction. Here, 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?
READ MORE FROM FANTASIA HERE
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; the targeting of children in online sadistic self-harm games. The curators of these, playing with the lives of teenagers and kids in hidden internet groups and chatrooms. Their vicious game, ensnaring vulnerable kids through a series of tasks that eventually lead 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‘ with increasing panic. The notion of adult predators stealing the lives of young people online, playing into deeply rooted social fears of paedophilia and 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. However, most of the message boards, chatrooms, and blogs linked to the suicides were led by kids.
READ MORE: DON’T CLICK
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. The devastating deaths of those teenagers linked to the ‘game’, forever misunderstood and misrepresented as society looked for easy answers.
So, here’s a question for you. Considering the social and psychological complexity of the above, how do you bring the blue whale story to the cinema screen? Do you opt for a screen time inspired popcorn horror? Or do you opt for something rooted in social psychology and online adolescent mental health? For Russian director Anna Zaytseva the answer lies in trying to balance both. A Scream-inspired popcorn horror coexisting with a more profound exploration of teenage isolation and suicide. 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. And just like its predecessors, there is no doubting its power as we enter a tangled web of messages, photos, texts and social media posts. Each click and conversation further expanding the horror of the blue whale game as we dive headfirst into the darkness of modern tech.
Following the sudden suicide of her younger sister, Dana (Anna Potebnya) goes searching for answers on her sister’s computer. But, what Dana finds shakes her to her core, for her younger sister was part of a deadly online game, #Blue_Whale. A game of challenges that ultimately led to her death in an online room of young players. 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 supports her hunt for the truth.
Together, they embark on a hunt of their own making, one where the blurred lines between hunter and prey threaten Dana’s family, life and newfound love. We find all the classic teen slasher horror ingredients here, from a masked and mysterious deadly curator to a love interest and bloody fight against the odds. The film’s finale delightfully reinventing Scream for the online age. Therefore, as a teen slasher, #Blue_Whale not only works but excels; its nerve-shredding tension creating a rabbit hole of no escape as Dana sinks further and further into the game that took her sister. But, #Blue_Whale also has a more profound responsibility, one held within the story it aims to reflect. And this story goes far beyond simplistic slasher horror.
READ MORE: THE RIGHTEOUS
The blue whale phenomenon highlighted the hidden and secretive worlds young people access online and the power these can hold in causing irreversible harm. These worlds, often curated by other young people, can merge fantasy, fiction and reality into a toxic concoction. In turn, playing with the dark emotions, feelings and need for escape all teenagers experience at some point during their adolescence. For many teenagers, these hidden online worlds are no more than a passing phase, a mere act of curiosity as they explore the online world around them. However, these worlds can become a dangerous support structure for others who feel isolated, alone, or scared. Their involvement, turning to addiction as they descend into darkness. Their peer groups, often instrumental in creating this darkness while powerless to stop its march.
#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, always at risk of broader public consumption in an online world of likes, shares, pictures and viral videos. At times, #Blue_Whale successfully demonstrates the power and influence the online world carries. But, this is ultimately undone as the film opts for popcorn horror over psychological terror. And as a result, while engaging and terrifying, #Blue_Whale leaves behind a somewhat sour taste. Its narrative, providing us with a confusing mix of loose social commentary and popcorn sensationalism. The resulting film ultimately forgoing its potential themes of adolescent psychology for a series of simplistic horror movie tropes.