Following in the footsteps of movies like Searching and The Den, we’ve seen a deluge of films – most of them horror or thriller – that take place within the confines of a computer screen. These films, colloquially known as ‘screenlife’, tend to work only if their format matches up well with the subject matter and story they’re depicting.
In Eva Strelnikova’s StayOnline, the screenlife technique feels like it’s found a perfect use case, as it depicts a tense and often heartbreaking thriller in which the protagonist never leaves her apartment. She remains online and in laser focus, even as she affects and is affected by the chaotic and tragically unpredictable world around her.
Katya, in the midst of war-torn Ukraine, finds herself in possession of a laptop belonging to a Ukrainian man, Andreij, who is attempting to flee the country. Andreij’s son Sava calls into the laptop and unwittingly begins communicating with Katya, and she develops a bond with him, using various apps and social media to help him locate his father, even as it plunges her loved ones – particularly her brother Vitya and a friend and aid volunteer Ryan – into deep danger.
Screenlife, in movies like Missing and Unfriended, uses elements like instant message popups to develop tension, and StayOnline does as well. The use of multiple apps onscreen, like Google Maps, GPS tracking software, and ‘live’ video provides an intriguing way to follow a scene, like a raid on an enemy compound or a chase sequence.
Katya’s transformation over the course of the film, from a provocateur and revenge-seeking internet troll to someone with real investment in the people affected by both her actions and the ability to change their lives in a meaningful way, is plain on her face as Stay Online drives to its nail-biting climax. It’s a film that gets the horror of war just right, remarkably by showing very little of the battlefield beyond icons on a desktop.
But war, war never changes. No matter where or how it’s fought, it is devastation and loss and anguish. StayOnline documents an information war, and connects it to real people on the battlefield, making the real world and an ongoing conflict to we’ve tragically become numb feel visceral. It’s a reminder that no matter the type or amount of distance we put between ourselves and wartime, there’s no insulation to be had.