25th Mar2021

‘Dark Web: Cicada 3301’ Review

by Phil Wheat

Stars: Jack Kesy, Conor Leslie, Ron Funches, Alan Ritchson, Andreas Apergis, Kris Holden-Ried, Alyssa Cheatham, Victoria Snow, Marvin Karon | Written by Joshua Montcalm, Alan Ritchson | Directed by Alan Ritchson

Cyber-thriller Dark Web: Cicada 3301 comes from actor turned writer/director Alan Ritchson (Titans) and is based on a series of mysterious, unsolved real-life set of puzzles, created and run by an organization called “Cicada 3301” that was apparently used to recruit codebreakers from the public, starting way back in 2012. The film however uses that puzzle element to deliver a film that feels very much like a hi-tech version of National Treasure

Dark Web: Cicada 3301 follows genius hacker Conner who stumbles across Cicada 3301, an online treasure hunt that could be a recruiting tool for a secret society. So far, so much like the real-life story. That doesn’t last long as Conner (Jack Kesy), his art-expert friend Avi (Ron Funches), and secretive librarian Gwen (Conor Leslie – one of director Alan Ritchson’s co-stars in Titans) are dashing from graffiti sites to ancient libraries to uncover real-world clues. But they must outrun aggressive NSA agents, also hot on the trail of Cicada, who want the glory for themselves.

As I said in the opener, Ritchson’s film feels very much akin to National Treasure, not just in the “treasure-hunting” aspect of the story but also in the way it blends action, adventure, thrills and laughs. And there are certainly plenty of laughs, especially when it comes to the skewed recollections of hacker Conner as he recalls the events of the Cicada 3301 hunt during his trial. And that’s the crux of Dark Web: Cicada 3301 – the entire film is told from the perspective of Conner as he stands trial for espionage and various other felonies, with his vision of events unfolding differently to the NSA agents working the case. Agents that include writer/director Ritchson, who brilliantly plays up the more ridiculous “memories” of Conner, throwing caution to the wind and embracing true ridiculousness – wearing costumes (giant baby heads and nappies anyone?), not wearing ANY clothes… any embarrassing thing Conner dreams up for the agents Ritchson brings to life on the screen with aplomb!

Speaking of Conner, Jack Kesy is incredibly likeable in the lead role, playing his character as a combination of Chuck-like tech savant and 90s-era movie slacker. He’s the kind of guy who wants the easy life – which is why he turns to hacking etc., to cheat at life; but at the same time if he did put his obvious skills to work he’d easily have that easy life he wants. He’s also somewhat of a smart-arse, with his mouth running as fast as his fingers on the keyboard. He’s far removed from a lot of the nerdier hacker-types you see in other genre fare – bringing that same ‘cool factor’ to keyboard-warrior stereotypes as Nicolas Cage did to history buffs!

In terms of films, besides National Treasure Ritchson’s film reminded me very much of 90s cyber-thriller The Net, complete with some OTT computer “hacking” skills that have to be seen to be “believed.” However Dark Web: Cicada 3301 is surprisingly more thrilling than many computer-based films of this ilk, yet never – apart from Conner’s ridiculous embellishments to the story – feels unbelievable. With Ritchson managing to make the hacking scenes as interesting as the fast-paced treasure-hunting aspect of the story; with set pieces that are as slick as any big-budget Hollywood thriller (think Enemy of the State). Yet in a complete departure from the aforementioned films, Dark Web: Cicada 3301 is also somewhat of an absurdist comedy too. Hey, if you end you massive dark web treasure hunt thriller at a bizarre Eyes Wide Shut-esque orgy on top of EVERYTHING else ridiculous that happens in this film, then you’re definitely not going for a serious action-thriller…

But why bother? There are plenty of cyber-based thrillers (and TV shows for that matter) which have covered similar ground in a serious fashion. But going for laughs as well? That’s where Dark Web: Cicada 3301 succeeds over and above other films of its ilk. In fact I had so much fun with the film I can easily see revisiting it on multiple occasions in future and I given there’s MANY films I love but don’t re-watch often I honestly can’t give the film more praise than that.

****½  4.5/5

Dark Web: Cicada 3301 is available on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital now, in the US, from Artisan/Lionsgate.

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