Nicholas Carr, in his eye-opening book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” has poignantly observed how “When we’re online, we’re often oblivious to everything else going on around us. The real world recedes as we process the flood of symbols and stimuli coming through our devices.”
“Disconnect” sets out to portray a society so immersed in the virtual that it’s numb to the physical. “Disconnect” also wants to be Paul Haggis’ “Crash” (2004) so badly it hurts; it’s even got the same modus operandi — disparate characters scattered about a city whose lives intersect in surprising and often tragic ways. While “Crash” took on the theme of racism and its consequences, “Disconnect” moves in a different direction, looking at how our online identities boomerang to impact our actual lives.
The Internet, we are told, is responsible for greater human connectivity than ever before. But if you’ve ever come home to a partner immersed in Farmville or had lunch with an old friend who has more conversation with his Twitter feed than with you, then you know the potential for alienation is all too clear.
This is where “Disconnect” picks up, following about a dozen characters who are all, in some sense, ensnared by the Net. There’s the couple (Paula Patton, Alexander Skarsgard) going through a chilly spell, with her finding solace (and intimacy) in a chat room; there are the skater jerks (Colin Ford, Aviad Bernstein) who create a fictional online identity to cyberbully a classmate (Jonah Bobo); there’s the ex-cop turned private detective (Frank Grillo) investigating identity theft; the lawyer father (Jason Bateman) who spends so much time connected to work electronically that he barely knows his kids; and the reporter (Andrea Riseborough) who is investigating teens working as live-sex webcam models by befriending one of them (Max Thieriot).
Henry Alex Rubin, best known for the wheelchair basketball documentary “Murderball,” has turned in a remarkably assured work for his first feature, equally at home depicting a squat full of tattooed teen runaways or newsroom politics.
Making a film where a lot of the characters are texting is no easy thing, but he does so judiciously, pulling in tight on the actors’ faces — revealing that texting expression of both focus and blankness — and letting the back-and-forth chat scroll down the screen. Rubin uses the first hour to weave the various plot strands together, and when they intersect, he pulls it off flawlessly. “Disconnect” builds to a tight crescendo and Rubin’s only misstep is the climax, which is a bit over-egged.
The views of “Disconnect” on the dark side of web connectivity may seem obvious, but very few are exploring this territory. There’s Fincher’s “The Social Network,” a range of B-horror films, and …? “The Matrix,” I suppose. Even fewer are realistically exploring how Net immersion is changing our everyday lives. As a technology that has become so all-consuming that teens can spend nearly a third of their day engaged with online media, the little screens are remarkably absent from the big one.