When he burst onto the scene in 2007 with his Spanish debut feature “Timecrimes,” film fans saw a potential new high profile name from a nation with a knack for churning out directors who really know how to pack in the thrills. But Nacho Vigalondo’s followup “Extraterrestrial” in 2011 was more of a whimper than a bang. This year, the hope is that his English language debut puts him back in gear. After a six year absence from the festival, Nacho Vigalondo is back at Fantasia, and if he has his way, you’ll never look at your computer screen the same way again, especially if there’s one too many windows open at the same time. To help him get an even bigger international boost, he’s got the support of an ex-porn star and an ex-hobbit. Unfortunately Vigalonto’s rise has been slowed because those who criticized ‘Timecrimes’ for being a little muddled in its narrative and those who felt ‘Extraterrestrial’ was all over the place in tone, will most likely feel carsick by the time “Open Windows” comes to a close.
Elijah Wood plays Nick Chambers, an internet nerd who wears buttoned up shirts and seemingly has zero social life. His one obsession is finding exclusive pictures of popular young actress Jill Godard (Sasha Grey) and being the first to post them on his website JillGodard.com. The pictures are on the thin line between creepy and pathetic; just provocative enough to make us slightly pity Nick’s obsession, but never lewd enough to make the audience recoil. Nick wins an online contest during the promotion of “Dark Skies,” one of Jill’s tentpole action films with a hilariously tasteless promo reel, and is promised an exclusive one-on-one interview with the actress. While watching the video for the “Dark Skies” press conference from his hotel room, Nick gets an email asking him to send a video of himself as part of the guidelines for winning the contest.
Vigalondo wastes little time. There’s no contest, there’s no exclusive one-on-one interview. It was all a ruse for a mysterious British hacker calling himself Chord (Neil Maskell) to sync into Nick’s computer, and start playing a demented game that forces Nick to get much closer to Jill than he could have ever imagined in his wildest dreams (or, as it were, nightmares.) Nick is cleverly lured into the hacker’s trap through technical sorcery; Chord has access to secret cameras at the press conference which gives Nick great material for his site, and he has ways of syncing with Jill’s cell phone, allowing them to see all of her texts and contacts, and even activating the camera with no notice, quick as a click. But things cascade into major creepiness when Chord orchestrates a set up and allows (read: forces) Nick to playing peeping Tom and watch Jill have sex with her agent. Things go from bad to worse, and Vigalondo’s rollercoaster ride starts taking major swerves from this point onwards; leaving plot, character, and theme in the dust.
Did we mention that all of “Open Windows” is constructed in a way for all of the action to unfold through some kind of computer screen? This structural hook starts off as an impressive device, especially with the screen-within-screen-within-yet-another-screen opening sequence, but degenerates as the film goes on and becomes little more than an ostentatious gimmick. The thematic weight is felt in the consequences of fame, dangers of online terrorism, and preservation of identity in a world so perilously wired together that privacy is viewed as a rare privilege. But the energized pacing and shifting from window to window functions as a brick tied on the end of a tightly wound rope. When more pieces get involved in the game, like a group of hacker enthusiasts operating from Paris and a legendary hacker called Nevada, the twists start bombarding through all screens and the experience becomes something a nightmare not just for Nick Chambers, but for the audience as well.
On the other hand, there’s plenty to take away from here. Wood and Grey give great performances, with Grey playing the Megan Fox-esque starlet with just the right shade of Lindsay Lohan and still making her sympathetic. Wood always does great work when playing suppressed hermits (see “Maniac” and TV’s “Wilfred” for recent examples) and his character evolves into a wider range towards the end. The film has enough thrills, laughs, technical smarts, and comprehensible layers to not be a blemish on any of the CVs from the involved talent. And that counts for Vigalondo, as well. While the execution may be somewhat of a misfire, the obvious effort and thought put into making the concept work is worthy. “Open Windows” may fail in its efficiency to collide several worlds together in order to relay a message about the one world we’re living in today, but the construction is clever enough to keep you interested until the end, even if the clearest message you end up taking away from the movie is how you should probably reformat your computer when you get home. [C+]