Back when Hollywood discovered the internet as a plot device—ushering in a period of movies about people frantically tapping on their keyboards—one major annoyance was the depiction of the internet itself.
They almost always got it wrong.
In movies like The Net (1995) or Sneakers (1992), the internet resembled a Hollywood art director’s idea of what this newfangled World Wide Web must look like. There was usually something a little bogus about it. So I’ll give credit to Searching, a new suspense film told entirely on a computer screen. The sites visited during the story are the real deal: YouTube, Facebook, and Gmail all flash by with believable functionality. The tech aspects of the film would’ve warmed Steve Jobs’ heart, if he’d had one. (Too soon?)
I wish Searching was believable beyond its gimmick. The story puts single dad David Kim (the reliable John Cho, from the Star Trek and Harold and Kumar worlds) in a panic when his teenage daughter Margot (Michelle La) goes missing. By using online tools and breaking into his daughter’s laptop (a slow, patient sequence that neatly suggests how easy it would be to hack somebody), David tries to solve the mystery of Margot’s disappearance, which turns out to be the mystery of someone he didn’t really know at all. David interacts with Margot’s schoolmates, his herb-friendly brother (Joseph Lee), and the detective (Debra Messing) assigned to the case. Messing deserves credit for ditching any semblance of Will & Grace glamour, although I’m not sure the movie’s net-based reality needed to make its actors look quite so bad.
The story isn’t much, so the film’s appeal comes from its technique. This gets overextended at 102 minutes, although you can admire director Aneesh Chaganty’s ingenuity. It’s possible this movie might work better streamed on your own laptop, as the windows-within-windows effect gets multiplied. A couple of late-blooming revelations are acceptably grabby, mostly because of the way they unfold—the helplessness of the web-surfer, the disconnection from being in a real space, is effective. You might be able to guess the twists, but the concept lends a bit of freshness to the process. What’s not fresh is the movie’s concern about how the internet is changing us all—I’m sure it will shock you to learn that Facebook “friends” are not necessarily your actual friends. At least Searching lets Cho create an overbearing character who isn’t terribly sympathetic; he reminds you that the fault may not be in the internet but in ourselves.
Searching isn’t the first movie to take the online approach: The 2014 horror film Unfriended and its current sequel, Unfriended: Dark Web, unfold along similar lines. All three films were produced by Timur Bekmambetov, the Russian filmmaker who frittered away his early promise on junk like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. He’s been touting the internet-based film as the art form’s future, but I wonder: If you’ve Googled and Instagrammed your way through 10 hours of your day already, aren’t you in the mood for something more expansive at the movies?