It’s incredibly difficult to make thrillers and horror films that revolve around technology. Those genres thrive off providing audiences with a universal experience they can relate to, and technology is constantly advancing to the point where a film may be of its time for a brief moment before looking dated in the future. This was especially true in the 1990s and early 2000s, when an influx of films of films like The Net and Swordfish attempted to parlay their thrills by exploiting the “dangers” of the internet and the computer, only to be laughably overwrought and wildly out of style not too long after they were released. What’s the solution to this conundrum? How do you make a film that centers around technology and keep it relevant for years to come? Searching has the answer: keep your story thematically familiar while refusing to take a particular stance towards technology and the internet.
The story here is simple. David (John Cho) discovers that his daughter Margot (Michelle La) has gone missing. She’s left behind her laptop, which David logs into, and he uses the device and all the information that Margot has stored in there to begin an investigation to discover where she may have gone. The further David wades into Margot’s life through her computer and social media accounts, the more he realizes how estranged he is from her — and how secretive his daughter has been for all these years, as she does erratic things like discreetly quit piano lessons behind David’s back and store up a large sum of money before Venmoing it to a now-deactivated account.
To put it bluntly, Searching is not a complex film. That’s why it works as well as it does sometimes. By adhering to a simple structure, especially in its first hour, the film allows its central mystery to unfurl in a very enigmatic and engaging way. There’s a patience here that’s not too often seen in modern thrillers, as the film favors character development over loud shocks. Unfortunately, this measured approach collapses in the final hour, where the film becomes a bog-standard thriller that doesn’t even use its technology angle in any interesting ways anymore. It becomes something akin to a Lifetime thriller, with melodramatic twists that make logical sense but feel emotionally dissatisfying, especially in light of how measured the film felt beforehand. Perhaps this is the cost of following formula closely, but that’s the decision the filmmakers had to make when they also decided to use computer and phone screens as the way they were going to tell a story. It’s never a gimmick, which is nice, but the filmmakers never quite find the best version of this story to tell through that medium.
The film is redeemed through the things it explores thematically. The father-daughter storyline surprises with how emotionally resonant it is. The trailers for the film promise a stark, cold thriller, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Searching explores the ways that technology can often create a social gap between us and the ones we think we’re closest to. David loses his wife early on to a terminal disease, and he suppresses Margot by refusing to speak about it. They’re both in pain, and could help one another move on from that, but that silence has consequences for both of them. Margot introverts, seeking counsel from social media and other connections on the internet, while David wonders just when he lost sight of who Margot really was. If the film’s final stretch is overly melodramatic, the one thing that still rings honest in light of everything is the way the film explores its father-daughter relationship. Also notable (and important) is how the film is very subtly led by an almost predominately Asian-American cast. It’s done in such an unfussy way, choosing to write David and Margot as ordinary people without ever scrubbing out their cultural ties at any point along the way.
Also fascinating is the way the film explores technology and the internet in particular. Most films take a strong stance of antagonism towards the subject, condemning the technology while scolding people for allowing themselves to be taken by it. Sometimes that fiery approach works. In the 2015 horror film Unfriended, a Skype group call between a group of high school friends is interrupted by an anonymous account claiming to be the ghost of a fellow student who committed suicide after being relentlessly bullied. Although it’s not the strongest horror film, the way Unfriended coldly shows the consequences of using the internet as a new means to bully others has made it continue to feel relevant, even if Skype eventually goes out of style. Searching takes rather the opposite stance and goes completely neutral. The film makes no sweeping comments about the internet, instead positing that the internet is neither good nor bad, but has the ability to amplify each of our impulses, whether they be noble or despicable. That makes sense, considering that David finds the internet both dangerous and necessary. It’s the reason Margot is in her predicament, but it also allows David to possibly find his missing daughter.
That neutral stance makes the most sense, because it’s not leaning into any particular aspect of internet culture with much muscle. Services and uses for the internet, if specified, will eventually be out of style, but an overarching attitude towards it feels more in line with a social, universal truth, just as Unfriended got mileage from speaking about bullying, something universal, in a digital age. Searching also shows the dangers of trying to communicate exclusively through technology, as it very nearly destroys the relationship that David has with Margot. By that same token, however, the film’s solution is not to completely remove phones and computers from our lives. Instead, it asks if it’s possible to find a balance, a sense of moderation. That feels fair. Technology isn’t going anywhere. It’s only going to continue to evolve, so if we can’t fully remove it from our lives, we can at least learn how to strike a balance.
Searching is the kind of project that serves as a calling card for its fresh new talent, even if it’s not a fully-formed narrative vehicle itself. That director Aneesh Chaganty even decided to film such a simple story in a stylized way, and makes it mostly work, is very impressive. The narrative falls apart, but the thematic connotations feel palpable. The film also manages to seamlessly recreate what the internet looks like in such a believable way that this might just be the best depiction of it committed to film.