It’s taken some years, but movies are increasingly incorporating the language of social media — not simply featuring platforms like Facebook or Skype in their plots, but using them to tell their stories. This was prefigured by the explosion in “found footage” films over the last decade, which was born from the increased access to video cameras. Now we see a variation on this style: movies told entirely on computer screens. There have been examples of these “browser films” before, but this year has seen a small wave of new entries. The latest, Searching, directed by Aneesh Chaganty, released this week.
The horror genre tends to embrace new technological innovations before others (found footage began solely as a horror subgenre before expanding to include the likes of superhero and comedy films), and most of the prominent browser films have been thrillers of some sort. The most obvious examples are Unfriended and this year’s sequel, Unfriended: Dark Web. Searching is another example, following John Cho as David, a man who begins scouring his daughter Margot’s (Michelle La) computer and social media presence after she goes missing. In the process, the gulf between the two of them is laid bare, as David learns of the painful secrets Margot has been keeping from him.
Searching opens with an extended sequence of Margot’s youth and the family’s eventual loss of mother Pamela through various Windows functions. The first shot is of the Windows XP default “Bliss” wallpaper, which both immediately orients the audience to the time period and sets an initial happy tone. The years roll by not just with progressively older actresses playing Margot but also in the form of changing website and browser aesthetics, increasing home video quality, and updated applications (Windows “Notes” give way to Google Calendar). The story is told primarily through Skype calls, with David exploring Facebook, Tumblr, Venmo, Instagram, and other apps to unspool Margot’s recent actions.
In many ways, Searching follows a template set by its predecessors in this genre and format. 2014’s Unfriended codified several ideas which subsequent browser films, including this year’s sequel, have utilized. There’s the use of Skype and other video messaging tools for conversation, Spotify for a diegetic soundtrack, Wikipedia and news sites for quick and easy background exposition — there’s an app for every storytelling convention. These ideas go back further than Unfriended, however. The 2013 short film Noah (a relationship drama, not a thriller) established nearly all of the same ideas, though it obviously didn’t have the same reach. Filmmakers Walter Woodman and Patrick Cederberg understood the potential in invoking the language of social media, something nearly all of us intrinsically grasp at this point. When point-of-view character Noah logs into his girlfriend’s Facebook profile and changes her relationship status to “single” in a jealous fit, the scene plays out wordlessly. Similarly, many of these films make great use of scrutinizing its characters’ messaging process, watching them type out several variations before hitting “send” — a canny way to visually depict someone’s thought process.
Browser films can also appropriate the familiar imagery of our technological tools in striking ways. The Unfriended movies have a good deal of fun turning the Skype call sound into something sinister. In one early scene in Searching, the transition from day to night is marked by a dissolve from David’s home screen to Apple’s “Flurry” screensaver. This well-known visual becomes something dreamlike, and is then made foreboding when the screen flashes multiple incoming calls from Margot which go unanswered.
The in-browser aesthetic doesn’t belong to fictional films alone. Kevin B. Lee’s 2014 video essay “Transformers: The Premake,” described as a “desktop documentary,” follows the production of 2014’s Transformers: Age of Extinction through trailers, press releases, and a lot of amateur footage of the shoot uploaded to sites like YouTube — all of it playing out on the same computer screen. In charting the hype cycle of the modern blockbuster, the video also explores the dynamics of how we ingest news in the digital age.
Some artists are experimenting not just with how we look at our laptops, but also our even more ubiquitous tech companions: our phones. The 2016 music video for J-pop group Lyrical School’s song “Run and Run” is made to be played on a smartphone. The video appears to take control of your device, with the band members gamboling through your camera, photo gallery, Twitter, and Vine (RIP Vine). More than a cute gimmick, it’s a rare video which acknowledges the medium most people are likely to view it on, a canny comment on how the smartphone has changed our relationship to entertainment and social interaction more broadly and music in particular.
We have yet to fully grapple with the changes the internet has brought to society. (Look no further than the furor over what to do about “fake news” for another example.) But filmmakers are catching up. The Unfriended films, Searching, and the upcoming Profile were all made with the help of Screenlife, a tool specifically developed for desktop films. As amateur users raised on YouTube, Twitch, and especially Vine come into their own as artists, we’ll doubtlessly see more films, essays, shorts, and other works which find even more new ways to explore digital spaces. This is one of the most exciting frontiers in cinematic art today, and not only can it all be seen on your laptop, but it’s even more at home there than anywhere else.
Searching is now screening at movie theaters nationwide.