Scrolling through the reviews of the 2018 film CAM, you’ll see comparisons to the popular show Black Mirror over and over.
Sometimes these comparisons are made in a positive way, with reviewers remarking that Black Mirror writers wish they would have thought of CAM’s storyline first. Others see the comparison less positively, dismissing CAM as shilling a fear mongering, anti-technology message. However, the conclusion that Black Mirror and CAM share the same purpose, because they both have technology prominently displayed in their storylines, falls flat.
Movies whose purpose is to criticize technological advancement use technology to magnify negative human characteristics to a level that becomes frightening to the audience. Not all films with technology utilize it in this way.
Christine (1983) is a film about a murderous car. The car is both a technology and the primary conveyor of horror in the film. Yet the film is not pushing the idea that advancement in automotive technology is negatively impacting humans. This is because there are significant differences between a film that makes a statement about technology and a film that just uses technology in its plot. Because of the rise in popularity of stories that warn their audience about the technology in our rapidly advancing world, people now see the technology in the film before looking at the film’s purpose. When people categorize CAM as a fear-of-technology film, they see form over function.
On the surface, CAM has similarities to the 2016 Black Mirror episode “Nosedive.” Both stories follow a young woman who carefully curates the image of herself that others engage with in order to gain a higher ranking. In both stories, their curated image is judged by other people and that judgement affects their ability to achieve the lifestyle they desire. However, Lola (from CAM)’s performance is different than Lacie (from Black Mirror)’s.
Lola is putting on a nightly show, like an actor might. She is doing a job and, like most jobs, it requires a specific type of professionalism. A cashier smiling and greeting a customer, despite not actually feeling happy, isn’t accused of being corrupted by her cash register. There is a clear separation between Lola’s job as a performer and her everyday interactions. In her regular life, her interactions are not influenced by her curated persona. Lola interacts with friends, family, and other “cammers” authentically, without consideration for her bubbly cam persona.
Lacie, on the other hand, is incapable of having authentic interactions. She is never free from her curated persona, even while speaking to friends or while in her own home. Lacie’s persona is created by technology’s influence on human nature. Black Mirrors’ themes often show how advancement in technology amplifies the negative aspects of human nature, revealing a dark side of people that had the potential to exist, but could not reach such an extreme level without the new technology.
That dark side is what creates the unanticipated consequences of technology. Lacie is kept in line by a fear of judgement and social punishment for stepping outside the norm that has been exasperated by technology that ranks every interaction. Lola’s persona has nothing to do with fear of judgement or punishment; she’s just being good at her job. In the end of “Nosedive,” Lacie gains her happy ending when she is removed entirely from the influence of technology. By comparison, Lola’s happy ending includes her continuing to cam online. Both women’s happy ending is created by the return of their personal agency, however, only Lacie’s agency is stolen by technology.
A more apt comparison for CAM may be found in The Ring (2002). Both films use a prominent technology of their time as a vehicle for an old form of horror. The Ring’s goal is not to make its audience afraid of using VHS tapes; they are merely an outlet to incorporate a mundane piece of everyday life into horror. It reminds the viewer that they haven’t escaped the horrors of a ghost story just because we rarely encounter rundown mansions in our day-to-day lives. Just like The Ring brings the centuries old story of ghosts into the modern era, CAM inserts an ancient fear of doppelgangers into our current lives.
Doppelganger is a German word meaning double walker, or a shadow of oneself. They have been considered a bad omen throughout history and many legends say that seeing one’s doppelganger leads to death. One way doppelgangers have been used in cinema is as a way to convey people’s anxieties about an “other them” that is better than they themselves can be.
Both of these doppelganger histories are present in CAM. During her investigation into her own hostile takeover, Lola discovers that Baby, the number one cammer, is actually dead and a doppelganger has taken over her cam career. Lola is also confronted with the image of her own death when she watches her doppelganger shoot herself during a cam show. This suicide show is one of the ways that Lola’s doppelganger is shown as an improved version of her. Whereas Lola uses a knife in her own suicide show, the doppelganger ups the ante by using a gun.
Throughout CAM, Lola shows a desire to (im)prove herself, telling her brother that she doesn’t want to tell their mom about camming until she makes the top 10 list. While she struggles to break into the top 50 cam rank, her doppelganger rapidly rises in the ranks, quickly climbing into the top 10. After Lola’s mom watches the doppelganger’s show, she even comments that she wishes Lola had the same confidence in person.
The tension between Lola and her doppelganger’s ability to achieve Lola’s goals comes to a head during the climax. Lola competes with her doppelganger to prove who is the “better” version of her. Both The Ring and CAM are routed in old tales of the supernatural. The supernatural has infiltrated modern technology, but that doesn’t mean the technology has been corrupted. It means that these supernatural fears can find us even in the places we feel comfortable.
Lola’s doppelganger appears after a stunt meant to gain success and attention, which may lead one to believe that her ambition caused the doppelgangers appearance. However, this is incorrect. Even at the beginning of the film, Lola is performing extreme, attention-grabbing show (see: her suicide show). The significance of the vibator show is not its extreme or attention-grabbing nature; it is its connection to control.
During the fake suicide Lola is in complete control of the stunt. The vibrator show is called a “control show” by Lola’s cammer friend because it reveals to her viewers that Lola is completely powerless. Her friend is in control of the vibrator and her viewers are in control of when it turns on and off.
Contrast this experience with her life before this show, which confirms that Lola’s life as a cam girl is all about being in complete control. She has power over the commenters on her videos through her ability to block people from her chat. She choses who is allowed to chat with her one-on-one. She decides how these men get to see her using a curated folder of pre-approved pictures on her phone that are ready to be sent when she wants them to be seen. Lola also maintains strict boundaries with her clients, such as never saying she loves them.
Her doppelganger is created in a moment when she gives up her restraints because it symbolizes the death of her control. This loss of control quickly spreads from her online life into her real life. She suddenly no longer has authority over who knows about her sex work and she is outed at her brother’s birthday party. She loses power over her clients when one client, Tinker, invades her personal life, and another, Barney, turns violent towards her at a restaurant meeting.
Doppelgangers can be used in stories to make a character face uncertainty in their own identity. Lola’s sense of self is never questioned, but her ability to control how others see her is stolen. People in vulnerable positions in society survive through strict control of themselves and their surroundings. The loss of agency in CAM is not created by the perils of the internet. It is not a story of a young woman the internet community turned on. The police officer’s dismissal of Lola is not an internet phenomenon. Tinker’s boundary- breaking obsession with her is not an internet phenomenon. CAM is about the horrors of being vulnerable and powerless, as someone with no protection, and its power lies in the ability to shift online horror to real life.
Are the themes found in CAM truly exasperated by current technology? Is Lola’s story one that could have been told without the internet? Does the story show negative aspects of humanity amplified by advancements in technology? These are questions I considered when determining if CAM is a tech-fear film.
The themes of identity, loss of control, and vulnerability present in CAM are not dependant on the presence of the internet. Lola’s career as a sex worker is what led to these themes. Her vulnerability as a sex worker is what led to the horror. Sex work appears in many forms. The internet may have given Lola a wider client base, but the consequences of a sex worker losing control of their relationship with their client is present regardless of technology.