Review: “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” is the comedy thriller that is neither comedic nor thrilling

The film’s forgettable characters follow the trail of a cryptic internet puzzle, taking a fascinating real-life phenomenon and sucking away the excitement.

By Elise Mulligan

In 2012, a cryptic post appeared on the web asking for “highly intelligent individuals” to find hidden messages only solvable through cryptography and computer security skills; Cicada 3301 was born. The organization behind the internet puzzles was, and still is unknown, but speculators predict it could be a government intelligence agency.

When I first read about Cicada 3301 a few years ago, I was fascinated by the mysterious internet oddity. The film “Dark Web: Cicada 3301,” which is based on this phenomenon, managed to turn my fascination into plain boredom. Its basic plot and characters made for a minimally entertaining narrative that lacked momentum and true comedy.

The movie is directed by Alan Ritchson, who is better known for his acting career in films such as “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (2014) and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” Ritchson also plays one of the government agents in “Dark Web: Cicada 3301.” Ritchson directed and produced the film with his personal production company AllyCat Entertainment and distributed it on Amazon Prime and other streaming services.

In the film, a bartender and skilled hacker named Connor (Jack Kesy) finds himself pursuing Cicada 3301’s puzzles in exchange for a large payment from National Security Agency agents. Connor teams up with a young librarian named Gwen (Conor Leslie) and his best friend Avi (Ron Funches) to follow a trail of encrypted clues, hopefully leading them to the identity of the organization behind the cryptic messages.

Under most listings, “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” describes itself as a “comedy thriller,” which I assumed meant that it would make me laugh. It didn’t in the slightest. The film’s idea of “humor” amounts to jokes about genitalia, overly aggressive and vulgar government officials and a quirky-best-friend trope.

An NSA agent threatening a man and telling him the agent is going to “crawl in a little f---ing hole in your cell while you’re sleeping” and “gnaw your tiny little f---ing d--k off” is a disgrace to comedy. Unless you’re in sixth grade, it’s just not funny.

The movie desperately tries to appear complex by throwing around technical jargon and niche knowledge of artwork related to the complicated clues. Granted, it is intriguing to see how the group solves puzzles and cracks into computers, but the problem is that the viewer isn’t rooting for the characters. The film’s writers fail to establish a meaningful reason for the characters pursuing this puzzle other than wanting money, so frankly, we just don’t care what happens to them or whether they succeed.

This lack of attachment is furthered through characters that are as flat as they come. Connor is a buff white man who spent time in jail, and is now down on cash. His main personality traits are being smart and sarcastic, and there is a weak attempt at developing his character by exploiting a past of abuse and neglect. Except it’s only mentioned about three times and in poor taste, trying to garner sympathy but failing to address the trauma in a genuine manner, or explain how it impacts his character in the present. Once again, it leaves the audience asking, “who cares?”

The other main characters are just as basic and forgettable. Avi is arguably the most likeable, but even his dialogue is ridiculously exaggerated. And don’t even get me started on Gwen’s presence as purely the hot female romantic interest — or the “hilarious” running joke of her being a lesbian.

Though the character development and humor is underwhelming, the movie’s production quality is high and visually well-done. The lighting, camera movements and pacing are reflective of blockbuster Hollywood action films, making the scenes and fight sequences more visually engaging.

That being said, some moments of post-production editing are disjointed from the rest of the film, such as the “Matrix”-esque slow-motion shot of Connor watching a cigarette fly by his head. It’s confusing because the viewer isn’t sure if Connor has actual time-stopping superpowers, or if it’s just cheesy dramatics. Either way, these moments of over-the-top editing are unnecessary.

In its entirety, “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” is a flatline of a movie that fails to get more exciting as it progresses. Other than the high-quality production, neither the bland characters nor the jumbled narrative will capture an audience’s interest. Whereas the real Cicada 3301 internet puzzle is full of mysterious intrigue, “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” trudges along with computer hacking that isn’t explained and cringe-inducing attempts at comedy.

If you need a puzzle that’s easier to solve than Cicada 3301, consider the puzzle of whether to watch this film. Spoiler alert: it’s not worth it.

Edited by Chloe Konrad | ckonrad@themaneater.com

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