Movie Review : Cam (2018)
The age of Silicon Valley triumphalism is coming to an end. Computer geeks who we’ve once hailed as the new Carnegies and Rockefellers have highjacked the internet, built intricate consumer profiles out of our online footprint and sold it to private interests for obscene amounts of money. They’re not sympathetic overachievers anymore. I know the era of public goodwill towards Silicon Valley types is coming to an end because popular culture is starting to turn on them. A movie like Netflix’s Cam is a prime example of that. It’s a troubling look at our relationship to technology that involves little to no science fiction. Take that, Black Mirror.
Cam is the story of a internet cam girl named Alice (Madeline Brewer), who hosts salacious daily live shows for lonely, middle-aged men who can tip her in real time to influence the content. Alice is part of a cam girl network, who compete in organized rankings, which means they regularly try to steal one another’s audience members. It’s a nasty business. After a particularly grueling show where she sits on contraption called the vibratron for so long that she passed out, Alice finds out she’s locked of her cam girl account and replaced by an exact copy of herself. I know, this is freaky. But it gets a lot worse from there.
The first thing I’ve thought of while watching Cam was Franz Kafka/Orson Welles’ The Trial. Alice is facing this life-altering ordeal, which no one is paying attention to because she’s technically still fulfilling her cam girl duties. The fact that she might have a body double is too crazy for her clients and colleagues to even consider. So, Alice has to navigate the theft of her professional identity alone. And that’s the uncomfortable, fucked up thing about this movie. Outside of an antagonist who may or may not exist, nobody’s really hostile towards Alice. Everyone just figures she’s angling for some kind of professional stunt because this is what cam girls do.
Cam doesn’t scapegoat technology like, let’s say a 90s movie would. Machines are not outwardly evil. Interestingly enough, the technology showed is pretty dated. The movie is more interested of showing us how it fucks up basic human relationships. The Free Girls Live network is basically a transactional platform, where customers pay for a service which isn’t all that well-defined. The network mediates every human interaction Alice has outside of her immediate family which it infects at some point.
So, everyone sees Alice through the prism of her professional life: clients see an elusive girlfriend, network veterans see a scam artist, colleagues see a competitor, even her mother sees an emancipated stranger who her little girl once was. The point of Cam is: when given the possibility to mediate their relationships through a commercial platform, people will start perceive the relationship (and therefore the people) like commodities. This is what happens to Alice. She’s not real because there’s a more pleasant version of herself still performing. Therefore, she must be angling for something. It’s scary because that dynamic has infiltrated every online interaction in 2018.
The paradox of Cam is that it’s a thematically complex and crucial movie that rather cold and cerebral, and plays within itself. But the very fact that it exists should scare us all: movies about the dark side of technology don’t belong to science fiction anymore. Technology is terrifying here and now. It might’ve been terrifying ten years ago, but we were too busy uploading photos of our teenage selves in embarrassing situations for the world to see, in order to notice. I wouldn’t say Cam is great from an artistic standpoint. It’s merely good and slickly produced. But it’s a strangely important movie that is bound to age well in this new era of distrust of technology we’re heading into.