Children can be creepy. I think we all know that by now. There’s something unnerving about the human brain when it’s still rapidly developing, particularly when they first hit the age at which they’re capable of deception and intelligence, but adults don’t suspect them of it. You can see it played out in The Bad Seed, The Brood, These are the Damned, The Children of the Corn, The Good Son, etc. Movies love to mine this trope over and over again and this movie is just another load coming up from that pit, with enough decoration to make you think it’s original (although they proudly state this movie was based on an “original idea” like 3 times in the credits).
It’s the near-future again and massive debt is still a thing. Jenny (Elizabeth Morris), a woman saddled with a ton of medical debt from her mom, finds a job as a chaperone at a school for gifted youngsters, but sadly not the one run by Charles Xavier. She meets her co-workers Tiggs (Kara Tointon) and Darby (Elliot James Langridge), whose total character descriptions are “feisty” and “douchenozzle.” The school is run by an AI named “ARIAL” but constantly spelled as Ariel (Jamie Bernadette), even though it’s an acronym for a word that begins with f*cking A. The school is actually in a series of underground rooms which are mostly not lit. In order to see, you have to wear a set of augmented reality glasses.
The children don’t speak, for the most part, instead choosing to communicate through ARIAL translating their typed messages. The “school” itself is actually just a series of augmented reality classes that the children experience which, while not original (hell, the Batman: Arkham games had it), is still always a pretty cool idea. However, as time goes by, strange things begin happening, with Jenny seeing or hearing things which appear to be illusions that are dismissed as her “breaking down.” This is despite the fact that ARIAL records stuff that Jenny sees and therefore could play it back and prove it to the others. This is overlooked in favor of being arbitrarily stupid.
Eventually, it’s revealed that the children, except for one child named Cassandra (Isabelle Allen), have decided to kill the adults and take over the facility. Being that they’re all super-geniuses, they’ve taken over ARIAL and have gained the ability to hack the chaperones’ VR glasses, which, admittedly, makes for a great set-up for a horror movie. Sadly, it just doesn’t take full advantage of it from there. Kids chase adults, adults get chased, someone wins, roll curtain.
There are a lot of elements that should work for this movie. For one, the kids aren’t driven by any particular motive except that they don’t seem to have any kind of emotional empathy (something enhanced by their “school”). The idea that the kids really are just doing this because they can makes everything so much worse and almost gives a moral to the story about raising children in a digital environment in which they are trained to view other people as information or resources rather than sources for emotional connection.
The AR glasses, too, could give you a lot to work with. The kids control what the adults (and the viewers) see and hear, something that has been used to terrifying effect in other films. The fact that the adults are given the options of either A) wear the glasses or B) not be able to see at all means they’re pretty much stuck dealing with it. There are a number of decent visuals involving AR within the movie. Perhaps the best one is the way that ARIAL is represented as a shimmering, ephemeral figure (much like her namesake from The Tempest).
The real problem isn’t the AR or the kids. It’s that even with those things, the movie just isn’t that scary. The kids aren’t messing with them enough for it to be a true psychological horror (and the ending that almost implies it doesn’t really give any satisfaction), they aren’t killing them in violent enough ways for it to be super gory or intense, and the film’s big twist is… well, stupid. It’s predictable and stupid. It’s so stupidly predictable that the only reason Jenny doesn’t predict it is that apparently she’s never seen any movie or read any book.
Overall, there’s a lot of great stuff that this movie could have done, and I’m just really sad that it didn’t do any of it.
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