Searching is the latest movie in the up-and-coming genre of computer-screen cinema. It tells the story of David Kim, played by John Cho, whose daughter, Margot, disappears out of the blue, after sending three consecutive phone calls in the middle of the night and having left her laptop at home. Ultimately, he turns to computers to aid in the search.
Everything you see in Searching takes place on a screen. And though you can see John Cho for most of its runtime, there is never a disembodied camera – it’s a FaceTime video feed or something on YouTube.
Before I talk about that, though, I want to talk about another movie: Unfriended, the 2014/15 horror movie that brought this thing into the relative mainstream. A pseudo-sequel that I didn’t watch, Dark Web, was released earlier this year, but the original Unfriended is a thing I have spent a lot of time thinking about, evidenced by the 2700-word review – one of the better ones I’ve written.
Unfriended takes place in real time. It is a screen recording in the literal sense: you can see the entirety of protagonist Blair’s laptop screen from start to finish. This is fascinating.
I described it as a film “about a girl who doesn’t know how to use Cmd+C” (or Ctrl+C, if you’re a Windows user). Anytime Blair needs to copy text (which is often), she goes through the laborious process of right clicking, copying, going to the destination, right clicking, and pasting. For a teenage girl, that’s completely ridiculous, and undoubtedly everyone involved knew that… but it exemplified the complexity of what the filmmakers were trying to achieve, as invisible keyboard shortcuts don’t communicate actions to the audience. It was a question of realism vs clarity, and the creative team went with the latter.
Searching generally avoids this problem by being something else entirely. Rather than “just” recording a screen, Searching uses the tools of cinematic language that have been developed over a century and applies them to this new type of production. There are pans and zooms and cuts. It has an original, non-diegetic score. There are changes in “location” as David shifts between computers, and the switch from macOS to Windows in key moments is a silent but powerful change.
There is nothing inherently wrong with Unfriended’s approach, which might be thought of as theatrical in an Off-Off… Off-Broadway sense versus Searching’s cinematic style. Each has a place. But what Unfriended did is much more difficult to make interesting for the duration of a feature film.
And with that, let’s talk about Searching!… ‘s marketing. I hate it when movies advertise their big, twisty narratives whether directly or by quoting some critic who wants his (probably; let’s be honest about the gender makeup of that industry) audience to know. The last ad I saw before going to see the movie was on Facebook. It says only “See the twist. Keep the secret.”
I don’t like this. If you don’t know that a movie has some big twist at the end and then it comes, then you will have a natural reaction and be surprised and hopefully thrilled. But when you go in looking for the twist, it consumes the movie. Everything becomes in service of this twist that you know is there and are now looking for. People have a natural tendency to want to outsmart movies. They want to figure out the twist because it means they’re better than the movie… or something.
So from the time I saw that ad until the moment I saw it, I was thinking about the twist. I was thinking about my assumptions about the twist. Because when I see that there’s something big, I always assume one of two things:
- Someone doesn’t exist
- The protagonist did it
These are bad twists. They can work (I saw an example of the former earlier this year that was handled beautifully), but that’s a rarity.
Fortunately, the creative team also knew this, and neither is the case here – in fact, neither is even flirted with.
But the nature of the film’s climax matters less than whether or not it is justified, and… there is no narrative payoff in Searching that does not have some kind of setup, as ham-fisted as it may sometimes be. It’s not trying to trick you or pull the wool over your eyes. In fact, by its very nature, you forcibly have the exact same amount of information at all times as David.
Which is the most interesting thing about the movie. Because every interaction David has, between his iPhone and his MacBook, is easily accessible in one place that an audience can use to follow along with the story. It doesn’t matter that the actual desktop was put together over many many many months in post-production – so cool, by the way, because that is what a desktop would look like were such a thing to actually be occurring.
And if someone had remote access to that computer, they would have access everything. The implications of these movies, then, is somewhat terrifying. They only work because it’s completely plausible to get the entirety of a story from text messages, facetime calls, etc. and not feel like you had information hidden from you. You can only feel like you’re as in-the-know as the protagonist if the protagonist puts his every thought onto a screen.
And he does. And you believe it.
Because we all do.
Eight Point Six out of Ten