Review: In 'Disconnect,' the Internet Is a Dark Place

Disconnect tries, and fails, to illuminate the ways we live online
Illustration by Chandra Illick

The central premise of Disconnect, a movie starring Jason Bateman and Hope Davis, is that for all our talk of connectivity, networks, and links, our dependence on technology is leading to greater isolation. We’ve never been more connected; we’ve never been more alone. Directed by Murderball helmer Henry Alex Rubin, Disconnect is born of the Crash School of Pretentious Plotting. You remember Crash—the worst movie to ever win Best Picture? Like that simplistic exercise in emotional manipulation and statement making, Disconnect has a single theme: The Internet is a cesspool. Not a way for couples to meet cute, à la You’ve Got Mail, not a source of untold riches, as in The Social Network. Nope, on the Internet our most base, venal, and hurtful instincts take over and are given wide open spaces to roam.

Like Crash, Disconnect attempts to tell multiple stories in service of an overarching message. Andrea Riseborough, a local TV reporter, has gone down a rabbit hole of webcam sites to do an exposé on porn. Alexander Skarsgård and Paula Patton, a couple already drifting apart after the death of their young son, see their finances upended when their identities are stolen. Bateman and Davis are the parents of two teens, one of whom, played by Jonah Bobo, is about to become the victim of online bullying with obvious tragic consequences. Oh, and Bateman is a lawyer for the TV station where Riseborough’s character works, and one of his son’s bullies is himself the son of the private eye who’s helping the grieving parents get their identities back. See? We’re all connected.

Some plots could have been explored more thoroughly, perhaps in movies of their own: The TV reporter develops a professional relationship with Kyle, an online porn-webcam performer she’s trying to recruit as a source. (Side note: Can we stop with the movie trope of the young, ambitious reporter who’s tired of doing “fluff” and wants to do something “edgy”? And by the way, Internet porn’s not some secret that’s been waiting to be uncovered. And also: She’s a local TV reporter.) There’s a twist when it’s discovered that our flawed heroine, in trying to encourage Kyle to speak to her, paid him money, drawing the attention of the FBI and her employer. There are some interesting questions there about ethics and conflicting and complementary agendas, but because it’s part of a multipart narrative, we move on before ever getting to unpack them.

This is the problem with making movies that attempt to address large issues of How We Live Now: If vignettes merely support a thesis, the audience is disinclined to care about the people in them. Instead of being entertained, we’re lectured to. Who wants that?

And on its way to the Crash School of Pretentious Plotting, Disconnect seems to have taken a correspondence course at Steven Soderbergh’s Sickly Cinematography Academy, as everything is shot in wan shades of yellow and green. It makes for an unrelentingly bleak 115 minutes. When the movie starts, things are lousy for everyone, and then it gets worse. People move through this world in a numbed state of dissatisfaction, never varying their response to any stimulus. Besides Bateman and Davis, who are wasted in their roles, the only spark of life comes from Marc Jacobs—yes, that Marc Jacobs—who plays a pimp for webcam performers. He’s menacing and fabulous in equal proportion.

Disconnect is not a shattering take on modern reality but a soul-sapping “idea” blended with heaping ladles of melodrama. Watching Disconnect, I was reminded of Nigel Tufnel’s remark on Spinal Tap’s all-black album cover for Smell the Glove: “How much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black.”

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