‘#Blue_Whale’ Is Terrifying But Technically Troubled: Fantasia Review 2021

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#Blue_Whale

Anna Zaytseva’s #Blue_Whale is a terrifying glimpse into the violent and manipulative world of online ‘suicide challenges.’ It is a surprisingly informative watch about the inner workings of the challenge and the experience of troubled teenagers who seek out inclusion and purpose within death cults.

★★★✰✰

In 2015, an infamous online challenge emerged that caused the death of hundreds of teenagers worldwide. Suicides related to the ‘Blue Whale Challenge‘ arose all over the globe, from its birthplace in Russia to India to the United States. The governor of a city in western Russia even appeared on television to condemn the Blue Whale Challenge. Even in 2018, the high-profile Islamic advisory body, Dar Al-Ifta, suggested that the Blue Whale Challenge should be criminalised after a teenage suicide related to the challenge in Cairo.

For those unfamiliar with the Blue Whale Challenge, it is an online suicide challenge with the same deadly ring as the Momo Challenge Hoax. Participants (more often than not, young teenagers) enter into group chats with ‘curators’ who assign them 50 tasks over 50 days, each getting progressively more violent by the day. The curators set challenges that isolate participants from the people around them and other self-destructive behaviours until they eventually tell them to commit suicide. It may seem like a situation in which you could simply opt out, but the psychological manipulation and threats that are part and parcel of the challenge make it feel impossible to escape.

The film follows the story of Dana (Anna Potebnya) who is grieving over her little sister, Yulya, who threw herself in front of a train as part of the challenge. On her rampage for answers and vengeance, she lifts the veil pff a community of suicidal teenagers with curators who pose a genuine threat to the players of the game. With her mother unwittingly under surveillance and constantly in danger from the curators, Dana gets sucked into completing the game.

It is intriguing to know that this film is co-produced by Timur Bekmambetov, the pioneer of screenlife storytelling. #Blue_Whale has a similar format to Bekmambetov’s other desktop-dominated films such as Unfriended in which the entire story is told through the screens of Dana’s laptop and mobile phone. Screenlife and found footage films like Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity usually give an authentic feel to the events that take place, which is why it is such an effective tool in the horror genre.

However, the realism of the situation is inevitably lost when every scene is well-shot, with clear lighting, and the characters in focus are always smack-bang in the centre of the frame regardless of the situation. We could be in the middle of a scene in which Dana is in a physical altercation or running for her life but her face is never out of frame or in the dark. This compromises the plausibility factor that makes screenlife storytelling so terrifying. The walking of the line between a technically well-crafted film and staying true to the way that normal people record their lives (with varying lighting and jagged hand-held shots when running away from danger) is difficult and, unfortunately, screenlife storytelling needed more commitment.

All that being said, the film is exhilarating and does have moments that are filled with dread and terror. These are not cheap jumpscares either; we are dragged into the same gut feeling of doom when we realise just how much power the curators have over Dana. When her mother is threatened, we feel the same fear. Furthermore, the transformative relationship between Dana and her mother is very touching. Starting off with classic mother-daughter resentment, made worse by shared grief, Dana’s exploration into the darkest corners of the internet brings her closer to her mother. Even when her mother unknowingly sabotages her endeavours towards the end of the film, Dana learns to love her mother and appreciate the concern that she has for her daughter. #Blue_Whale is a moving film that shows how far a child was willing to go for her parent rather than the other way around.

The Verdict

#Blue_Whale is a thrilling dive into a contemporary horror story with fabulous acting, albeit with overly artificial screenlife storytelling having a rather off-kilter effect. It is a surprisingly affecting and exciting dive into some of the internet’s darkest corners.

#Blue_Whale is currently streaming as part of the Fantasia Film Festival 2021.

Words by Elizabeth Sorrell


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