Monday, October 4, 2010

'The Social Network' review

Facebook: The Movie. Doesn't sound like the most compelling premise for a film. It actually sounds like one of Hollywood's really bad ideas that would be marketed to teens, be directed by some studio hack and stars Justin Timberlake. Well, it did end up starring Justin Timberlake. Other than that, though, it completely defies expectations.

Then again my expectations were a lot different once I heard that the script was written by Aaron Sorkin and the film was directed by David Fincher, who is my favorite living director. At that point my interest in the film heightened immensely. Once the trailer came out I was even more intrigued. It looked to be a serious film exploring themes of weight and significance. And finally, once the early critical reviews began to hit--with the consensus being that it was one of the best films of the year, with reviewers making comparisons to Citizen Kane, Network and Rashomon--my anticipation peaked. For the most part the film didn't disappoint, though it may not have reached the lofty heights that many reviewers marked out for it.

The film follows the rise of Mark Zuckerburg, a Harvard student computer-programmer-slash-hacker, portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg in a mesmerizing performance. The story is told in a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, alternating between the events surrounding the creation of Facebook and later depositions of lawsuits where Zuckerburg is being sued. The press leading up to the release of the film made it seem like the film would be a harsh and supremely unsympathetic portrayal of Zuckerburg, though it didn't strike me as such. Sure, he's young, brash, arrogant, and makes some mistakes, but none so egregious that they can't be understood or easily forgiven. If the film is unfairly critical of Zuckerburg then he must be a saint in real life.

Meanwhile, to counterbalance his faults, he's crafty, insightful, driven and talented. Moreso than any of his friends or competitors, and it's these attributes that end up putting him on top. Not intellectual property theft. Not dastardly, ruthless business tactics. But his own abilities, combined with being in the right place at the right time. Of course not everyone sees the film this way, which is the first sign of a great piece of art. Many see in Zuckerburg and his deeds the exact opposite of what I've just described.

Fincher turns in one of his most subtle and straightforward pieces of direction here. In most of his films his direction comes to the forefront and makes itself known, but not here. Though his usual dark palette is still present, and his work is no less deft. This was probably a conscious decision which allowed the brilliant script of Sorkin's to shine. The script features an electrifying pace which propels the film along and keeps tension in the proceedings. It's witty, funny and exciting. Considering what the film is about, where it's set, and all the other on-paper statistics about it, it easily could have been a very dry and dull film, but it isn't. And the cast successfully breathes life into the material. With Eisenberg leading the way everyone else follows suit; the film features many fine performances. Most of the characters being fairly unlikable in their own unique way, but at the same time compelling in that unlikability.

An underappreciated element of the film is probably the score by Trent Reznor. It's very strange, and in it's strangeness, as well as the fact that it works very well, it reminds me of the score from There Will Be Blood. It causes the film to kind of palpitate and pulse, but not in an unearned way.

I will offer one piece of criticism that kind of goes against the grain. Many reviewers singled out the opening scene as being one of the best of the film, usually stating that for a basic dialogue scene it was exhilarating and brilliant. I actually felt that the opening scene was one of the weakest things about the film, though I see what it is that people liked about it. I imagine the people who loved it are also fans of Gilmore Girls, Juno-type, ultra-snappy, too-witty, unrealistic dialogue. But it just comes off as pretentious to me. The dialogue itself is actually fine, but Sorkin's script is too cute here with how it's structured. Perhaps it's preferable to a more traditional dialogue structure in that it is more lively, but the novelty is outweighed by the fact that it's annoying and showy. Luckily for me this trend doesn't hold for most of the film. The script stays sharp and fresh throughout without being cute and drawing attention to itself.

The film is primarily a psychological profile of Zuckerburg, but it has some larger concerns as well. While you're watching it you might not notice it, but when viewed from the outside you can see that the film is making social commentary on this new moment in history. About technology and how we relate to each other. It's best encapsulated in Sean Parker's statement that "We used to live on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we'll live on the internet!" It's a seemingly ominous declaration, but there's at least an element of truth to it, if not a great deal of truth. Why is this the case? Should this be the case? Should I embrace this change or rage against it? What significance does it have for humanity going forward? What is different about this new kind of social living from the social living of days past? Are these channels of communication more or less direct? How do these changes affect everything about our lives? These are some of the things the film causes you to think about when reflecting on it, though not necessarily while watching it. The Social Network is a phenomenal film that is primarily a smart, funny, witty piece of entertainment, but is also an observation on the first step of the next evolutionary phase of human socialization.

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