Dark Web: Cicada 3301

I know I’d seen the cover for the 2021 film DARK WEB: CICADA 3301 before. I assumed it was some generic shitty hacker thriller, so I paid it no mind. But when I was working on my review of FAST X I noticed it on the filmography of Alan Ritchson – he’s not only in it as an actor, but he directed and co-wrote it. That’s right, Reacher himself, from the TV show Reacher. I had to know what kind of a movie Reacher would direct, so I watched it.

It’s not a great movie, but it’s an interesting one. The cover really doesn’t capture the feel of the thing, which is very smart alecky, though more of a thriller with a sense of humor than an all-out comedy. The marketing team might’ve been counting on people knowing what the title referred to, which I did not. It sounds like the corniest name ever if you don’t know “Cicada 3301” is a mysterious internet puzzle thing that’s famous as far as mysterious internet puzzles things go. I guess these very difficult puzzles were posted between 2012 and 2014, claiming to be designed to find “highly intelligent individuals” for some unknown purpose, and only 2 of the 3 have ever been solved. Wikipedia says that “the puzzles focused heavily on data security, cryptography, steganography, and internet anonymity,” whatever that means. Rumors grew that they were a recruiting tool for an intelligence agency, a hacker group, or a secret society. This movie imagines one explanation and follows some characters trying to solve the puzzles.

If you’re expecting what’s on that cover, the actual energy and tone of the movie are immediately surprising. It starts right in the middle of something, the main character Connor (Jack Kesy, DEATH WISH, WITHOUT REMORSE) in a mansion trying to break into someone’s computer, but he’s sardonically narrating the story, and then there’s an explosion and a show-offy FX shot where the camera rotates around the flames and follows him in a slow motion Hans Grueber fall with sparks and debris floating past him, and when he hits the lawn the title comes up (filled with TV snow, scanlines and tracking lines), and then we’re in the top secret United States Foreign Surveillance Court, where he’s telling this story to a panel of judges to defend himself from charges of high treason, espionage, terrorism and murder. He’s by himself, no lawyer, looking over at a table of five suits (including Ritchson as “Agent Carver”) who are accusing him, but he’s being real casual about it, kicking his feet up on the table and making jokes about them having “penis envy” and stuff.

He says he got involved with Cicada 3301 when he was working as a bartender and beat up up some sexist asshole (Benjamin Sutherland, KICKING BLOOD) for leaving one of the waitresses an insulting tip. The scene includes a bunch of show-offy visual gimmicks: numbers floating in the air as he calculates percentages, a bullet time thing when the customer flicks a cigarette, Connor looking across the room and seeing a childhood flashback (identified by its washed out, grainy look, with VHS tracking lines) of his dad flicking a cigarette at him during a pool game. Then he beats the guy up. So the scene establishes his mathematical genius, his fighting skills, his attitude, and the fact that DARK WEB is not trying to be some normal DTV hacker thriller. It’s trying to be in the spirit of FIGHT CLUB, Guy Ritchie, movies that are kinda macho and rowdy on the surface but also very invested in being witty and stylistically playful. That’s helpful in a movie about hacking – I appreciate the gimmicks like split screens and projecting everything he’s looking at onto the walls or his face, so you’re not just looking at monitors all the time.

Anyway he hacks the bad customer’s computer (email: hedgefundwilly@gmail.com, pw: 123456Seven), steals his Bitcoin, notices “the Cicada files” on his computer and gets curious.

This cover looks very serious too.

Connor is going to be evicted from his apartment if he doesn’t pay his landlord (Anselmo DeSousa, CODA) – a deaf man who curses him out every time he sees him. To show he’s a sweetheart we meet a neighbor kid named Sophia (Alyssa Cheatham, COLLATERAL BEAUTY) who he brings to the library because her mom (Quancetia Hamilton, EXIT WOUNDS) won’t. That’s where he meets Gwen (Conor Leslie, Titans), a librarian with blue streaks in her hair so you know she’s wild. After blowing up his own computer he works on the puzzles at the library, and it turns out Gwen has been trying to solve them too. They start working together on it even though she’s on the clock and occasionally has to chase somebody off for masturbating to porn on one of the other computers.

Connor also ropes in his best friend, college professor Avi (Ron Funches, ONCE UPON A TIME IN VENICE). We know he’s smart because he’s introduced playing chess with old men in the park and he wears a bow tie. He’s reluctant and doesn’t want trouble – a good instinct, because the NSA agents pick up Connor and force him to infiltrate Cicada for them.

When the filmatists were excited about putting Cicada 3301 into a movie maybe they didn’t think too deeply about how the puzzles would play cinematically. There’s alot of the three friends pacing around, typity typing and squinting at projected computings to quickly solve complicated riddles and puzzles. Actual quote: “That’s it! The color! We need to know the chemical composition of the pigment that’s used in this region. We need to scrape off some of the ink and analyze it.” To me it’s not great for the big (or small) screen because they gotta make the puzzles impossible for us to figure out on our own (otherwise it wouldn’t seem so hard) so you’re just watching these actors pretend to figure out something we can’t really follow and we pretend it makes sense. I’d rather see them talk about their emotions or jump motorcycles or something than talk each other through this gibberish about prime numbers and historical allusions and rare manuscripts, even if it’s set up for MISSION: IMPOSSIBLEish business of sneaking into places to steal things and stuff.)

A bunch of the comedy bickering and what not doesn’t work for me, but there are many amusing parts, like when Connor is talking to Avi and Gwen and doesn’t notice as they are bagged and abducted behind him.

They’re literally dragged into the woods by “other Cicada hopefuls” in camo and deer masks who are then shot up by NSA agents dressed in diapers and oversized baby masks.

That’s the most enjoyable running gag: Connor keeps embellishing the story with nonsensical parts that make the agents, and Ritchson’s character in particular, look ridiculous. Crazy things will happen in the story we’re watching and then it will cut to the courtroom where the agents are objecting and getting upset. Some of it is of the bordering-on-homophobic variety, but Ritchson still makes some of those funny, like when his version of playing the “bad cop” includes threatening, “I crawl in a little fucking hole in your cell while you’re sleeping and I gnaw your tiny little dick off,” and then he gets defensive when his partner wants him to tone it down.

Eventually Connor is invited to an exclusive Cicada masquerade ball in London. There are holograms of people in togas who call him by name, a real shirtless dude (Christian Mazzilli) who points a sword at him and shows him a cigarette-smoking skeleton painted on his back as a clue, an orgy, cocaine, dry ice beverages, and the leader of Cicada 3301, Phillip Dubois (Kris Holden-Ried, K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER), who walks slowly down a stairway rattling off Connor’s biography, tries to shame him into joining an evil plot, gets mad and breaks a globe, reveals secrets to turn him against Gwen, and tries to make them kill each other with an antique pistol. A good twist is that (spoiler) he’s such a corny villain because he’s actually just an actor they hired and are feeding lines to over an earpiece.

In the end there’s a twist where Connor has been way ahead of everybody the whole and outsmarts them all, like Blade would do. It’s a pretty corny movie that’s probly not as witty as it thinks it is, but I respect it. The leads are likable, it’s way smarter and more entertaining than the last DTV cyber thriller I watched (WAR GAMES: THE DEAD CODE), and Ritchson is quite funny in it. I didn’t even mention the scene where he’s naked with a Ken-doll-style lack of genitalia and a dildo strapped to his mouth.

While wearing that outfit he shoots an innocent, helpless man in the head, causing his eyeball to pop out, then he and the other agents excitedly high five each other. This is the showcase role Ritchson wrote for himself: the Elmer Fudd to the hero’s Bugs Bunny. Not many muscle men have the sense of humor for that.

And Kesy is a good lead, too, kind of a Charlie Hunnam type, playing that fantasy character of the rugged, regular working class guy who’s also an elite ultra-super-genius; the goofball fuck up who’s late on his rent and gets cursed out by everybody, even little girls, but also outsmarts absolutely everyone including the secret agencies who have him in custody. I had no idea who Kesy was, but I’m glad I liked him in the movie since he’s playing Hellboy in the upcoming HELLBOY: THE CROOKED MAN. I wish him well.

According to IMDb, Ritchson previously wrote and directed a 14 minute short called Tree House Time Machine (2017), and is in pre-production on a horror movie called BAD SEEDS OF LOVING SPRING, from a script by his DARK WEB co-writer Joshua Montcalm. If they make it, I will watch it.

This entry was posted on Monday, August 14th, 2023 at 7:01 am and is filed under Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

3 Responses to “Dark Web: Cicada 3301”

  1. I’ve seen Ritchson in a surprising amount (for such a hunky guy) of funny roles through the years. Often pretty self-deprecating (#Micropenis). So he absolutely has a sense of humor and really good comedic timing. Good to hear that he now even writes such parts for himself. This one goes on my watchlist.

  2. I think I mentioned this on Twitter and not here, so: Alan Ritchson starred in a silly, pulpy grindhouse series called Blood Drive about a car that runs on blood, and a cross-country race through various grindhouse subgenres, which lasted one season Syfy. I really liked it and it’s what made me keep an eye on what he was up to. I totally overlooked DARK WEB, but it sounds like it might be worth a gander.

  3. Alan Ritchson is unexpectedly starting to become a favorite of mine. At first I kind of wrote him off, due mainly to him having not a whole lot to work with on the pretty bad Titans DC show. But, even in that show he had a moment or two where I was impressed with his performance and since then.. well, Reacher. Hope he gets the recognition he deserves.

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