Lionsgate // 2013 // 115 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // September 17th, 2013
Someone I follow on Twitter recently asked, "Just checking: would any parent let their teenage daughter go to a co-ed sleepover?" Perhaps the "just checking" brought out the contrarian in me, but I immediately thought that yes, there were circumstances in which I would let my teenage daughter go to a co-ed sleepover. The ensuing conversation made me realize that for most people, the phrase "co-ed sleepover" immediately causes shock and horror. Of course, that's not the only phrase that does that -- terms like "cyberbullying" and "identity theft" also can turn people into quivering messes as well. Hoping to tap into some of that unease for his first fiction film, Murderball director Henry-Alex Ruben crafts a largely disjointed meditation on life in the digital age.
Disconnect weaves three stories into a tapestry of internet paranoia. One story features a reporter investigating the world of underage kids who perform sexually over internet video. Another features the parents of a child who is the victim of cyberbullying. The final story is about a couple who've lost all their financial security due to identity theft. Eventually, we learn that all these stories are connected.
There's a huge problem with films like Disconnect, which aims to show us the dark side of the internet. The problem is that shenanigans on the internet are the symptom, not the real issue. Cyberbullying is terrible, and I'm sure those on the receiving end would like it to stop. However, there's a reason we append "cyber" to the "bullying" -- because it's a real-world phenomenon that predates the internet. Identity theft and sexual exploitation of minors similarly existed before cyberspace. What a film can bring home is how these practices have changed, or how easy the internet makes certain things
The other problem with Disconnect is that it suffers from one of the major sins that most haters throw at the internet: short attention span. Any one of the numerous ills that Disconnect highlights is deserving of its own feature-length treatment. Instead, the three main plots are all told together, with the film sliding between them without much apparent justification. Yes, there's a certain "We're all connected" theme that gets worked out once we know how all the stories relate, but that's not sufficient to make all three threads compelling. The least interesting tale is that of the couple who've lost their identities; this is a thoroughly twentieth century story and devolves quickly into a kind of cheap detective story. The story of online video exploitation is slightly more compelling; few dramas have explored this kind situation, especially for the underage. The film could have been a bit more sensitive about this story, but it's well told. The most compelling story is that of the cyberbullying. Because the young lad is seduced by a fake female profile, the tension remains really high throughout as the audience knows what the victim does not.
In the film's defense, it's not the fault of the actors, nor of the director. Henry Alex Rubin commits to shooting his first fiction feature in a handheld, digital style that attempts to convey the distraction of the internet with lots of visual overload. It works, but some viewers might prefer a less "busy" take on the material. All the actors do a fine job taking their characters through this tale. Jason Bateman, Alexander Skarsgård, and Max Thierot are especially good.
Disconnect (Blu-ray) is also good. The film's 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer does the film's quick-cut, digital-style justice. The source itself appears to be overly tweaked, with lots of changes in color, saturation, and contrast. The transfer has to run to keep up, but it seems like this is the intended "look" of the film. Detail isn't great, but there are no compression artefacts or excessive digital manipulation. The film doesn't look jaw-dropping, but that seems to be intentional. The film's DTS-HD 5.1 track is even better. The mix keeps dialogue clean and clear in the front, with the surrounds used mainly for the score. It's a quiet mix, without much dynamic range, but that suits the film.
Extras start with a commentary by Henry Alex Rubin. He spends a bit too much time narrating the on-screen action, but if viewers can sit through that he shares a few good stories on the film. More revealing is the 30-minute making of. It's EPK-style, but between the interviews and behind-the-scenes footage we get a good idea of how the film is put together. Another featurette looks at a recording session for the film. We also get the film's trailer and a UV digital copy.
Disconnect wants to be a hard-hitting drama about what it means to live in our connected universe. Instead, it tends towards the worst aspects of "digital culture" without illuminating the problems it wants to show. The actors do what they can with the material, but Disconnect should have been disconnected into three different stories to really succeed. At least the decent Disconnect (Blu-ray) will make rental a painless choice for fans of these actors.
A bit too disconnected for its own good, but not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Rated R
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