• March 2, 2021

The demon from the smartphone

In the horror thriller “Countdown”, teenagers are predicted the date of death via the app. Playing with the fear of the announced death has a cinematic tradition. Modern people strive for …

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In the horror thriller “Countdown”, teenagers are predicted the date of death via the app. Playing with the fear of the announced death has a cinematic tradition.

Modern people strive for self-optimization, and the smartphone is their best friend. You happily feed your biometric data into the digital stream and get information about your state of health, calorie intake and much more. In this respect, the idea of ​​an application that predicts the time of death down to the second is not so unreasonable. It is called “Countdown” in the current US shocker of the same title and is installed by a group of drunk young people on their cell phones for the party fun. The terms of use are clicked away unread and your life expectancy compared to that of others. With just over three hours remaining, a young woman is a clear loser. In fact, she dies the same night, right on time. The film has thus established its dramaturgical mechanism, a nurse accidentally stumbling into the plot tries to research and lever it out.

Death and predictions are of course not a modern phenomenon: but while the augurs, oracles and gut readers of the past still predicted rather cryptically, there is no longer any room for interpretation in the digital age with information tailored precisely to the respective user. An artificial intelligence developed by the Google group recently managed to accurately predict the time of patient discharge and the likelihood of future health problems in a test run, fed with data from hospitals.

Sentimental cinema likes to tell about people with incurable diseases and poor prognoses, whether in dramas like Isabel Coixet’s “My Life Without Me” (2003) or tragicomedies like “India” (1993). The knowledge of one’s own finiteness usually leads to a more conscious experience of the world in the characters, which is also recommended to the audience in the sense of a Carpe Diem. If, on the other hand, it is not the individual death that announces itself, but the end of the world, as in Stefan Ruzowitzky’s series “8 Days” (2019) or in the Australian thriller “These Final Hours” (2013), then there is neither time nor space for embarrassment, then it does not crumble only the individual, but civilization as such.

Read the terms of use!

Horror films such as “Countdown” are of little interest for such a natural or apocalyptically based demise due to the genre. Instead, the death threat of a human or the death curse of a paranormal malefactor becomes a dramaturgical anchor. The Austrian Andreas Prochaska emulated in his teenage slasher “In 3 days you are dead” (2006) similar US films from the late 1990s, in particular “I know what you did last summer” (1997). A text message announces the passing of high school graduates. In order to find out the sender (and murderer), the script requires the characters to have a turbocatharsis, in the course of which repressed (evil) acts come to light.

Uncovering past crimes and the associated redemption of an evil spirit was also the essence of a whole series of Japanese films with countdown dramaturgy, which were largely inspired by Hideo Nakata’s elegantly minimalist shocker “Ringu” (1998). In it, a video tape with disturbing images puts a curse on anyone who has seen it, which leads to death after seven days. However, the most exciting variation on the subject was provided by a US horror franchise: In “Final Destination” (2000), a youngster predicts the crash of the plane in which his school class is to travel to Paris. After a panic attack and subsequent hand-to-hand fight, he and a handful of others are expelled from the machine, which actually explodes shortly after starting.

As is well known, death cannot be avoided: the survivors die in unexplained accidents. In “Countdown”, too, those affected try everything to avoid fate, which of course contradicts the terms of use of the app and encourages the demon behind it to perform at its best. In this respect, this below-average creep has at least an educational added value: Better read everything carefully before loading an app on your phone.

(“Die Presse”, print edition, February 3, 2020)

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