Warning: #Blue_Whale and this review discuss suicide and self-harm. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or have desires to self-harm, please call the Canada Suicide Prevention Service, 1-833-456-4566.
The most frightening part of #Blue_Whale is how seeded in reality it is. Not just the fact that a “Blue Whale” challenge actually existed, but how destructive social media has become, especially to the younger generation.
Produced by Timur Bekmambetov, #Blue_Whale was inspired by the 2016 online challenge of the same name. A “game” that assigned individuals 50 tasks, beginning with innocuous assignments, leading to self-harm, and then ending in suicide. The Blue Whale Challenge allegedly existed in several countries, but gained the most prominence in Russia after a journalist began linking a group on the Russian social media platform VK called “F57” to a number of child suicides. (It should be noted that no connection between the suicides and F57 was ever confirmed).
Director Anna Zaytseva co-wrote #Blue_Whale with Evgenia Bogomyakova and Olga Klemesheva, utilizing the “Screenlife” genre. The entire film is told through desktop and mobile screens; social media posts, video chats, text messages, and live streams become the audience’s window into the story.
#Blue_Whale begins with the suicide of Dana’s (Anna Potebnya) younger sister, Yulya—a once happy-go-lucky teenager who suddenly withdrew from her family. Dana refuses to believe that her sister was unhappy enough to end her life and begins to investigate the circumstances of her death. While going through Yulya’s computer, Dana discovers the disturbing game and decides to participate in it, determined to uncover who is behind Blue Whale.
Screenlife films have detractors who believe the filming method to be nothing more than a gimmick but there are some stories, #Blue_Whale included, which lend themselves well to the genre. Even so, there will always be unnatural moments that will take audiences out of the film; times when it simply wouldn’t make sense to keep filming while holding your phone or laptop—like when you are trying to catch a criminal.
The subject-matter of this film is inherently heavy and truly horrific and, rather than simply rehashing the Blue Whale story, Zaytseva introduces elements of romance and family drama to balance the weight of the topic. At times #Blue_Whale is a typical slasher horror, including a few cornball moments that require a light suspension of belief; but ultimately, #Blue_Whale keeps you engaged throughout with the tension building at a nice pace.
As a film, #Blue_Whale is fine. Potebnya is great in the leading role, balancing the crime-solving determination with the vulnerability we expect from teenagers. There are better films within the genre (Searching, for example) and as a horror/thriller, it is far from being a ground-breaking or sophisticated addition.
What is certain is that the movie’s implications are far more important than any criticism about its filmmaking. Whether or not the Blue Whale challenge was actually responsible for goading young people into suicide, the film shows just how dangerous, isolating, and extreme social media can be. And since viral trends and challenges don’t look to be going anywhere anytime soon, films like #Blue_Whale serves a purpose by reminding us to be careful, stay safe, and look out for one another.
#Blue_Whale screened virtually at Fantasia Fest 2021 on August 19.