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A film that actually understands the internet

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At first glance, Searching looks like just another cautionary tale about the dangers of the internet.

John Cho plays David, a dad who delves into his daughter’s virtual life after she goes missing. As you’d guess, he soon discovers there was a whole other side to his beloved Margot (Michelle La) that he never knew.

But of all the film’s twists and turns (and it’s a mystery thriller, so there are plenty), the biggest one might be that it’s not really anti-technology at all. 

To director Aneesh Chaganty, this was key. “Everything, everything we watch about technology is about how our screens are alienating us, how we’re obsessed with likes, how AI is going to take over the world so we should just stock up on our canned foods now,” he told Mashable earlier this month in LA.

Searching, he said, was about “giving technology a more holistic perspective, because it’s both the problem in the movie and the heart of the solution.”

The central gimmick of the film is that it unfolds entirely on screens, including laptops, phones, and security cameras. What we see on those screens reveal the internet as a source of menace and danger — but also one of information, support, and connection. 

Above all, the concept demonstrates how completely we’ve woven these technologies into our everyday lives. Searching opens with a seven-minute montage chronicling the lives of the Kim family over the past decade or so — from the creation of a new computer account for young Margot to a series of postponed calendar events signaling her mother’s death from cancer. 

That it works — that you’re actually able to follow and get invested in this family just by following their digital activity — feels both improbable and inevitable. Searching plays on what Cho calls “computer nostalgia.” You probably didn’t really miss any of these old operating systems, icons, or programs. But when they do appear, they instantly evoke a particular moment in time, the way a smell or a song might in other contexts. 

It’s the surest sign that with Searching, movies have finally caught up to the past decade-plus of personal technology. “I was surprised, watching this movie, how much we’re all computer literate. My in-laws, who are in their 70s, watched it and loved it, and they said, Most importantly, we understood it,” explained Cho. “I said to Aneesh at some point, we couldn’t have made this film 10 years ago because our collective vocabulary wasn’t quite there yet.”

Searching feels fluent in that language in large part due to Chaganty’s insistence on using (mostly) real programs and sites. “I think for the most part, I’ve never seen technology portrayed accurately in movies,” he said, citing the fake websites, made-up UIs, and nonsensical display settings often used in other films.

“As an audience member, you’re willing to accept that, but there’s a click that happens, like, That’s not real,” he continued. “And to us, step one of this movie was setting it on an internet and on a computer that everybody recognizes.”

That meant not only showing familiar tools (FaceTime, Google Sheets) and spaces (Facebook, Instagram) but using them in familiar ways. Margot’s Facebook page is littered with connections to kids she’s barely friends with, while her Tumblr allows her to get more personal. Her relationships can be traced across Instagram and Venmo. 

Some of the stuff we see on there seems sinister, and some of it seems sweet, but all of it seems as real as anything we’ve seen in our own lives. Searching shrugs off the idea that our screen activity exists in some lesser unreality, separate from our genuine selves. It’s a useful counterpoint to stories like Ready Player One, where the lesson is that Online is no substitute for real life, or Black Mirror‘s “Nosedive” episode, which criticizes the phoniness of social media.

Director and co-writer Aneesh Chaganty with John Cho on the set of 'Searching.'

Director and co-writer Aneesh Chaganty with John Cho on the set of ‘Searching.’

To that end, Searching also shoots Margot and David’s digital activity like, well, non-digital activity. “What we wanted to do was take these very mundane, normal things that people use every day and turn them into a cinematic canvas by using cinematic techniques, which is something that hasn’t been done before,” said Chaganty. 

Unlike 2014’s Unfriended, which showed a static laptop screen in real time, Searching employs zooms and pans and skips ahead in the manner of a more traditional movie. Still, that applies mostly to the apps we see onscreen, not the actors. Cho admitted that acting to a laptop presented its own “disorienting” challenge.

“I’m sure the next person will be like, This is what Searching did wrong, and even improve it from there.”

“The biggest thing was just no people. And I know that that’s the reality, looking at a screen, but it’s so nice to be able to look into a person’s face and then get something off of it,” he said. 

But, he acknowledged, that might be a “generational” thing — at 46, he’s decades older than the actress who plays his daughter. “Michelle La was saying that she found it very natural to act in front of a webcam, and I couldn’t believe it,” he said, looking slightly amazed. “So maybe I’m just old.”

Which points to another crucial point about Searching‘s place in the medium: As Chaganty points out, it’s just “the most recent experiment” in an ongoing effort by the big screen to do right by all those smaller screens. 

“We’re very new in our tech literacy, where it’s invaded our entire lives, that we live our lives on screens, that it’s going to take a matter of time and some iterations and some experiments for people to figure out what is the best way to show things onscreen,” said Chaganty. 

So, yeah, Searching may do better than most movies at showing what life online is like these days. But Chaganty, who noted how many movies before Searching have gotten the internet wrong, is not arrogant enough to assume he’s the one person who’s gotten it completely right. 

“I’m sure the next person will be like, This is what Searching did wrong, and even improve it from there,” he said.

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