As we get deeper into an age defined by the everyday use of technology that only a decade ago seemed alien, films aiming to depict our relationship with that tech become increasingly less prescient. At the turn of the millennium, several notable films, both arthouse and mainstream, coupled their narratives with an underlying social commentary about the dehumanisation of spending our lives staring at screens. Now, in a world where we’re greeted by weekly screen time reports, the majority of filmmakers have decided this commentary is surplus to requirements.
Any recent films that have aimed to tackle alienation in the social media age (such as 2014’s Men, Women and Children or 2017’s The Circle) have been mocked and written off as hand-wringing, outdated nonsense, paling in comparison to deliberately silly teen thrillers like the Unfriended series. Those films understand our common social media addiction and how it’s near impossible to log off, but also bake that into their premise instead of making a glaringly obvious commentary. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, the feature directorial debut of Jane Schoenbrun, feels like the moment the cyber thriller genre goes full circle, as the film effectively returns to the aforementioned commentaries about isolation and dehumanisation caused by social media while removing the concerned parental anxieties to offer a more incisive examination of how we interact with online content.
Casey (Anna Cobb), a teenage girl with a horror obsession, has decided to take part in the World’s Fair challenge, an online game that has caused several urban legends of teens mentally and physically deteriorating after they take part. Little changes after Casey films her experiences, at least until her videos catch the eye of JLB (Michael J. Rodgers), who has found some hidden clues in the girl’s video that suggest she’s in danger. He instructs Casey to keep filming so that he can use his knowledge of the world’s fair lore to try save her.
During the opening 10 minutes of We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, it feels like Schoenbrun is simply putting a spin on the Blumhouse brand of tech thriller, as Casey appears at her desktop in a long take during the early stages of apparent disassociation after taking the challenge — Unfriended by way of Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels. Mercifully, this is much more than an artier retread of a familiar tech thriller, in many ways feeling like the first post-Blumhouse film, dissecting how both personality and online brand can be influenced by pop culture consumption, with the character’s love for the horror genre and morbid interest in the role playing game all seeming to stem from a love for the Paranormal Activity films.
As We’re All Going to the World’s Fair gets thornier in determining whether the audience is witnessing reality or a meticulously-constructed fiction on behalf of the protagonist, this approach becomes all the more fascinating. For example, is Casey filming her sleeping patterns due to a genuine concern that she’s showing signs of disturbing behaviour, or is she trying to mimic a recurring source of jump scares in her favourite franchise? Schoenbrun’s film succeeds in analysing how these recurrent horror tropes are being re-invented and constantly re-examined through the lens of social media, offering a meta commentary on how storytelling evolves alongside the technology with which it’s presented.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is at its best when examining the ways we interact with technology, and how trauma is effectively repackaged as serialised storytelling in order to maintain the attention of an online audience. Casey spirals down endless YouTube rabbit holes, autoplaying several different clips that supposedly deepen the wider mystery of the World’s Fair Challenge, dispassionately consuming increasingly surreal and extreme content in a manner that may remind one of Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover. Although Assayas pushed the concept to further extremes than Schoenbrun, both filmmakers seem fascinated with this core idea about our relationship with the media we consume, interrogating its potential to desensitise viewers to further societal extremes without ever coming across as a hectoring thesis statement designed to chastise the audience.
As JLB consumes Casey’s videos in the same way that the girl has been consuming World’s Fair content, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair examines the relationship between content creator and viewer, blurring the creative lines in a manner that has only become possible with social media. While watching the film, I was struck by the loneliness of both characters, their entire lives increasingly revolving around the creation and consumption of content. Both the theme of Casey’s videos, and the increased isolation of both characters, call to mind Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse, possibly the only early 21st century tech horror that actually improves with age.
If We’re All Going to the World’s Fair has a flaw, it’s that it doesn’t quite get under the audience’s skin in the same way as the two aforementioned films did. This is naturally by design, with Schoenbrun more interested in exploring these ideas over pushing them to their logical extremes, but it does result in a film that is more intellectually stimulating than it is horrifying, as We’re All Going to the World’s Fair engages the head but never quite provokes a full blooded response that would quicken the heart. And due to the nature of the narrative — exploring media consumption and our relationship with online content — the central mystery as to whether Casey is cursed after taking part in the challenge is less engaging than if it were to embrace a deeper ambiguity. If anything, I’m concerned audiences may write off the film’s many attributes as a direct response to a perceived obviousness in narrative; a mystery where the answer isn’t concealed well enough from viewers to hold their attention, causing them to overlook a more incisive cultural commentary behind it.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair would’ve benefitted from leaning more into the ambiguous lines between documentation and constructed fiction, but it remains a fascinating fiction debut nevertheless.
Alistair Ryder (@YesitsAlistair) has been writing about film and TV for nearly five years at Film Inquiry, Gay Essential and The Digital Fix. He’s also a member of GALECA (the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association), and once interviewed Woody Harrelson, which he will probably tell you about extensively, whether you want to hear about it or not.