REVIEW: ‘The Social Dilemma’ is the movie ‘Cuties’ wanted to be

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William Becker, Staff Writer

There’s something to be said about the duality and contrast between “Cuties” and “The Social Dilemma.” While “Cuties” was a poorly acted, poorly written and a ham-fisted attempt to make a significant statement about the modern world, “The Social Dilemma” is a thrilling look into what is wrong with the world today and how technology influences it. There’s a classic narrative of “phones are bad and kids should play outside,” but “The Social Dilemma” takes a much more striking and unique look into the demons of social media.

Director Jeff Orlowski is no stranger to making compelling documentaries. His first feature-length documentary came in 2012 in the form of “Chasing Ice,” which was focused on the effects of climate change on glaciers. It was followed up in 2017 with “Chasing Choral” in 2017, which was about the disappearance of coral reefs. “The Social Dilemma” is quite unlike anything Orlowski has ever made, which almost makes it weird that it’s so impressively good. “The Social Dilemma” feels like a picture directed by someone who has been running a well-oiled machine that consistently produces similar films for decades; the opposite being true makes “The Social Dilemma” much more of a creative feat.

It’s best to strictly think of “The Social Dilemma” as a documentary, even though there are some Black-Mirror-esque skits thrown in to emphasize the dramatic effect. Instead of being a documentary on a very specific subsection of why social media has become so toxic, it feels like a multi-pronged approach that addresses data mining, surveillance, suicide rates, politics, addiction and even fake news in the most recent election. 

There’s no argument in this documentary you haven’t heard before. Everyone is familiar with addiction-based designs for social media; the goal is to keep users returning over and over again. The same can be said for data being sold to advertisers. What makes “The Social Dilemma” unique is that it features an outstanding cast of tech insiders, such as former employees of Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Firefox and Twitter. 

Across the documentary’s run time, there’s an overarching theme of how social media used to be a wonderful and beneficial thing for all of humanity, but it has quickly become a force of danger. Every person who is interviewed puts on emphasis on how things were great but became corrupted by corporations. Originally, social media was designed with the purpose of connecting people, but it’s become a three hundred pound weight on the shoulders of the people. Instead of bringing good things, it exists as a backdrop of anxiety and pain.

Weirdly enough for a documentary, I found the soundtrack particularly invigorating. It was particularly reminiscent of the anxiety-driven score work of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. It’s based on melancholic and staccato piano notes, synth drones and tech-flourishes, creating an atmosphere that is foreboding and overwhelming all at once.

“Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse,” is one of the first quotes plastered across the screen at the beginning of the documentary. Even though it was said by Sophocles long before the dawn of the internet, it perfectly captures the double-edged sword of social media. “The Social Dilemma” tries its best to get to the bottom of the spider-web of problems with modern technology and the internet, and surprisingly, it never falls on its face. 

While “Cuties” is a film that is similar in concept (that is, dealing with highly important social issues,) it comes nowhere near being as exceptional in execution as “The Social Dilemma.” If any film captures the bizarre and terrifying zeitgeist of the disinformation age, it’s this one.