Influencer (2022) is the sort of movie in which a ruddy, sopping-wet Englishman sidles up to a young woman at a bar and offers to show her around because he’s “just being friendly.” It is the type of film in which another young Western woman mockingly laughs and tells him to get lost, intimating that “such men are dangerous.” It is the kind of cinematic experience in which Western Girl #2 lures Western Girl #1 to a remote island off a remote island off an internationally known archipelago and leaves her to die. But don’t worry, she jokingly-not-jokingly shares her plan over a campfire on that God-forsaken beach. Western Girl #1 is an influencer. Western Girl #2 kills and replaces influencers.
Influencer is what I have come to think of as a critically uncritical movie. It sets out to exploit/unmask a topic of interest and directs its ire (and fascination) in all the wrong ways. Don’t get me wrong: we could use a successful film about social media. Horror is probably the right genre for it—from Rosemary’s Baby (1968) to Old Man (2022) horror has proven itself a useful way of exploring the very human fear of the inhuman. The commodification of identity and its relationship to AI (and let’s throw in neo-colonialism to boot!) are honorable, even righteous, avenues of exploration. Unfortunately, this Kurtis David Harder flick is the sort of movie in which Western Boys videochat their Western Girls from Thailand and say things like: “that’s so you.”
Everyone here speaks in truisms. Madison (Emily Tennant) has come to Thailand because [as I once heard said on The Bachelor (2002-Present)], “it’s so spiritual, so historical.” She feeds this to her presumably between 1-2 million followers. Her boyfriend, Ryan (Rory J. Saper), can’t join her because he’s busy doing shoots. CW (Cassandra Naud), another, more permanent expat (and not the TV channel), kidnaps Madison and steals her identity, using AI to smooth over differences (blonde v. brunette, visibly birth marked v. not). Next, she prepares to do the same with Jessica (Sara Canning), an older, girl-boss of an influencer. CW is, however, interrupted by Ryan, who despite being the sort of boyfriend who shows minimal interest in his girlfriend, flies out to Thailand to find her in a flight of abusive fancy. Will Ryan find Madison? Will CW, like some Kirby-esque vampire, absorb Jessica too? Is Madison even dead? Does anyone care?
Harder’s movie gets one key point right: being an influencer makes anyone with a desire for freedom or self-respect desire not to be one anymore. Madison hates her job and seems to have come to it only because of Ryan’s influence. She has no special talents, nor does she seem to fill a particular niche. She merely cultivates para-social relationships and uses them to harvest human souls for the grain elevator to hell that is capital. In a more coherent movie, this little fact would make CW a force for good, a kind of liberator of human potential, someone whose parasitic power absorbs all that is broken about our world. She could be a kind of 21st-century Jesus Christ. But she is not. She is a killer, at once entirely inscrutable and unbearably simple.
Influencer lacks perspective. It serves us up AI, social media, and the gorgeous beaches of Thailand and asks that we gawk. This is not in itself the worst sin. Only recently I watched Gregg Araki’s The Doom Generation (1995), a movie so thoroughly ironized its only purpose seems to be ensuring us the director smirked before we did. But Araki’s film is a fun watch, a visually stunning marvel of bloody dark comedy. Influencer is instead the sort of movie in which a blow to the head is presaged by whooshing and indicated by a thump and a jump cut.
Perhaps that’s the ticket. Maybe Harder wanted to make something that captures the spirit of social media—its banal conformity and faux-politics. If so, we’ve got a resounding success.