“Searching 2018″ – A Lifeless Thriller Plays Out on a Computer Screen
If it weren’t for the technical gimmickry of “Searching,” a new thriller directed by Aneesh Chaganty (who co-wrote it with Sev Ohanian), it might never have been made. The story follows the familiar path of a widowed father. David Kim (John Cho), a prosperous Silicon Valley engineer, whose fifteen-year-old daughter, Margot (Michelle La), goes missing after a nighttime study session.
After contacting the police, he’s advise by the investigating officer. Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing), to take part in the search, and he does so by rummaging through the contacts on her laptop computer, questioning people she knows. And uncovering aspects of her life that she had kept hidden from him and that may have play a role in her disappearance.
The sneakily brilliant new thriller Searching found $7.6 million at the US box office and another $6.5 million abroad over the long Labor Day weekend. That makes it a smash hit for Sony, which picked up the Audience Award-winning film at Sundance for a cool $5 million, and an even bigger triumph for first-time director Aneesh Chaganty.
Searching looks to have an even brighter box-office future ahead, because the internet is just beginning to discover the hidden Easter eggs made possible by its unique conceit: The film takes place entirely on computer screens. The format—like 2015’s horror hit Unfriended, by the same Russian production company, Bazelevs—was called a “meticulously constructed storytelling device” by the New York Times. It has all the action of the film taking place through Cho’s protagonist, David Kim interacting with screens of computers, smartphones, streaming media devices, and via webcams.
In this regard, “Searching” differs from the recently released computer-centric thriller “Unfriended:Dark Web
” in which the action unfolds in a continuous view of one computer screen in real time, with its various windows and texts popping into view but not being edited. Both films were produce by Bazelevs, a production company run by the producer and director Timur Bekmambetov. Who is advancing a series of twenty-plus computer-screen movies that. He says, reflect “a new reality” and that can be made “with no rules.”
With “Searching,” however, the lack of rules leads to both a drama and a technique that are utterly unoriginal. The events are spread over several weeks. They aren’t limited to the use of a single computer. And they’re edit to resemble the visual patterns of movies that aren’t bound to computer screens.
In 2015, the movie Unfriended land in theaters, telling a conventional supernatural revenge story with an unconventional conceit: The entire film took place on the screen of one character’s laptop. That approach really shouldn’t have work, but Unfriended was nevertheless a creepy, unsettling, low-budget success. When I spoke with producer Timur Bekmambetov at the time, he envision “screen movies” as an entire genre.
The filmmaker is taking his next big swing at the format with Searching. Starring Star Trek’s John Cho and Will & Grace’s Debra Messing. It’s the story of a father who frantically tries to find his daughter when she goes missing. Only this time, the film doesn’t just take place on a single laptop. It takes place on the screens of multiple computers, with an iPhone thrown into the mix for good measure. Once again, this is an idea that shouldn’t work. But Searching is a taut, surprisingly emotional ride. It doesn’t entirely stick the landing, but it’s proof the screen-movie concept isn’t just a one-off fluke.
The main effect of limiting the action of “Searching” to computer screens is to accelerate the pace of storytelling.
Just as computers speed up the pace of work (a trip to the library is replace by a few clicks. Flipping through books is replace by a search; the travel time for a visit is replace by a video chat). The movie’s delivery of dramatic information is sped up to cram a large batch of narrative details into its hundred-and-two-minute span.
Because the quantity of information is large. The filmmakers simplify the quality of it in order to render the action clear and unambiguous. The incidentals of daily life that surround its digital traces are filter out; the context vanishes, but its vanishing isn’t dramatize. The filmmakers have little to say about whether computer-centric isolation is alienating, exhilarating, liberation, or terrifying. There’s neither enough computer-screen diversity nor enough physical activity to put the movie’s own premise into context.
The popularity of “Searching” is unsurprising. The modestly clever and easily advertise distinctiveness of its technique is a minor sensation, a variety of Smell-O-Vision, Percepto. Or 4-D that creates new cinematic sensations without new cinematic ideas. The technique is an overhype curiosity that will quickly run its course of popularity and soon come to seem quaint. A nostalgia-inducing artifact of a time when filmmakers tried less to confront than to exploit the obvious phenomenon of time spent in front of computers and online. What’s all the more remarkable, however, is the film’s critical acclaim.
Critics like rules, for a variety of reasons.
One is that the power to detect them behind the unruly surfaces of movies seems like a display of analytical acumen. Another is that constraint itself is a mode of virtue in critical discourse. Whether the practical constraints impose by studios and producers in quest of commercial success .The deference to establish classical modes of filmmaking, or the graceful submission to the practical concept of movies as a collaborative venture.
What’s more, critics often take directorial adherence to one big rule, in lieu of the disparate conventions binding run-of-the-mill movies, as an act of principle. (I’m remind of the work of so-call Dogme filmmakers, whose firm self-impose rules appeal to critics. Yet, far from resulting in original filmmaking practices, those rules result in an even more rigidly script-bound and conventional realism.) What’s noteworthy about “Searching” is solely its reflection of modern digital life. Which few filmmakers successfully integrate into the texture and the substance of their live-action dramas.
The failure of “Searching” is, conversely, an inability to integrate much of life at all into the world of screens. There’s no reason that a movie confined to a computer screen can’t be a good one, can’t be a substantial creation. But “Searching,” with its self-impose rules treat as limits rather than challenges. That with its conspicuous sense of obedience rather than defiance, doesn’t come close to it.
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic content, some drug and sexual references, and for language)
Genre: Mystery & Suspense
Directed By: Aneesh Chaganty
Stars: John Cho, Debra Messing, Joseph Lee
Written By: Aneesh Chaganty, Sev Ohanian
In Theaters: Aug 31, 2018 Wide
On Disc/Streaming: Nov 27, 2018
Runtime: 101 minutes
Studio: Screen Gems
It’s done with few words but it’s unexpectedly touching, fulfilling the film’s key promise – that it’s going to make you care about these people, despite the secondhand nature of its delivery system.
Searching is a taut, effectively paced mystery-thriller with a powerful emotional component.
Some nice moves but as shallow as YouTube celebrity.
For most of its running time, Searching refreshes our screens. Smiley face.