“Searching” is being heralded as the ushering in as the birth of an exciting new narrative concept, but here’s hoping this filmmaking style quickly goes the way of the mumblecore genre. I sit at a computer monitor all day so the last thing I want to do when I escape to the world of cinema is sit and look at a computer screen for an additional two hours. The crime drama, set entirely on computer screens, has enough mysterious twists and turns to keep you mildly engaged but is far from the thriller it could’ve been.
There are some legitimately effective scenes that deliver an emotional punch, the best being the beautiful, extended introductory set-up where we learn the family’s history from a shared montage of their online activity from their daughter’s birth to the death of a wife and mother. It’s almost impossible not to be emotionally invested in these characters and feel the agony along with David (John Cho) when he realizes his teenage daughter Margot (Michelle La) has gone missing. David aids a superstar detective (Debra Messing), in a clunky misstep of a performance) in the investigation by poring over Margot’s social media accounts to search for answers. The distraught dad slowly realizes how little he actually knew about his daughter.
The storytelling device of using social media to solve a mystery is moderately engaging at first but quickly turns into a distracting gimmick that becomes stale. The entire film takes place on various electronic devices, from multiple computers to iPhones to hidden surveillance cameras. If watching as someone types a search query into Google is your idea of a good time, then you’ll love this movie.
The most interesting themes aren’t amplified enough, like how truly scary it is that random strangers can find out a lot about you from your seemingly innocuous online activity and how most of us share far too many intimate details of our lives on social media without so much as a blink. The film takes a turn for the worst when it abandons all the compelling set ups and tosses them out the window in favor of a preposterous ending, an outrageous final reveal that, and there’s no sugar coating it here, is just plain dumb.
Attentive viewers will notice little hints along the way that something’s up (check out Margot’s high school mascot, for instance), but the ending is altogether off-putting. The film is grossly condescending to its audience too, treating them like morons by hand holding everyone’s way through the mystery and the eventual crazy twist.
Director Aneesh Chaganty for some reason feels the need to over-explain and repetitively state the obvious, from ridiculous news report narration to literally spelling out the big clues that eventually solve the crime. Perhaps he is bowing to average moviegoers who aren’t in the business of challenging themselves, but this movie has all the subtleties of a t.v. movie of the week.
A couple of years ago, a low-budget horror movie called “Unfriended” was released. It was a neat gimmick; essentially, taking place all within the social media (with video) discussions of a group of friends on a Facebook-like website (who were, one by one, being stalked and killed by an unknown presence), it was a new take on the found footage genre. It was kinda cool as a gimmick, but not very notable for any other reason. It really wasn’t a very good movie.
“Searching” is an attempt to improve on the gimmick. Margot (Michelle La), the daughter of single dad David (John Cho), has gone missing. David uses a variety of connected devices, including laptops, smartphones, video streaming sites, and cameras to search for his missing daughter. During his search, David works closely with Detective Vick (Debra Messing) to discover why his daughter left and where she went.
While “Searching” is definitely an improvement on “Unfriended,” the overall concept is still problematic. The story is definitely an upgrade, but if the goal is to make the audience forget that they’re watching everything unfold on connected devices, that goal wasn’t reached. It may be more watchable, but after a while the format’s limitations turn tedious, and the movie outstays its welcome by a good twenty minutes at least. Not coincidentally, that last twenty minutes is also when the movie veers from the compellingly credible to the head-smackingly ridiculous. In that period of time, we get a Scooby Doo-quality villain reveal that’s quickly followed by a conclusion that is simply groan-worthy.
I wanted “Searching” to be the movie that transcends both its format and its gimmick, but it does neither.
Experimental cinema needs to happen for the medium to evolve, (like that ‘first person shooter’ film that came out a while back) but in order for it to succeed the director needs to know when to yell, ‘cut’. Chaganty didn’t.
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