Essays · Movies

Screen Life Movies Can Change The Game If They’re Done Right

Desktop horror films are the hot new thing, but they need to learn how to respect the format and their audiences.
By  · Published on August 28th, 2018

Russian director and producer Timur Bekmambetov is the man behind some of the biggest surprises to hit the horror genre in recent years. In 2014, he produced Unfriended, which had a budget of $1 million and grossed over $64 million. This year he produced a sequel, Unfriended: Dark Web, as well as the thriller Searching. The latter was recently given a wide release after taking home the NEXT Audience Award at Sundance back in January. Bekmambetov also directed Profile, which won the Panorama Audience Award at the Berlinale.

The thing all these films have in common is that they are shot from the point of view of computer screens. You can say that this is a gimmick, you can even say that it’s a little schlocky, but you can’t deny that these films and others like them have launched a subgenre that shows no signs of slowing down.

These “Screen Life” films, as Bekmambetov has dubbed them, are gaining more attention thanks to the success of Searching, which currently boasts a 93% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Unlike the Unfriended films, which feature the expected collection of teens and 20-something’s fighting for their lives against ghosts and masked villains, Searching aims to hit closer to home as the film follows widowed father David Kim (John Cho) as he searches for his missing daughter Margot (Michelle La) by tracing her activity online.

When compared to the sometimes unintentionally humorous and even downright silly Unfriended, which follows a group of teens whose Skype chat is infiltrated by a malevolent spirit that seeks to punish them for their involvement in the suicide of a fellow student one year prior, most would agree that Searching tells the more interesting story. However, there’s more to these films than just their premises; there’s also the matter of how they use their formats. Speaking as a fan of this subgenre, I was looking forward to Searching, but I found that the film undervalues both its desktop conceit and its audience.

My issues with Searching are most easily articulated when comparing how it and Unfriended use their computer screens. Unfriended takes place in real time with the film’s perspective firmly locked in the point of view of Blaire (Shelley Hennig). Before we even see Blaire’s face via her Skype conversation, director Levan Gabriadze communicates an immense amount of information through her computer. Blaire’s Spotify playlists with indie pop music, the episode of Teen Wolf that she has in an open tab, the homepage for celebrity gossip site Jezebel that she has bookmarked, the episode of Saturday Night Live with Miley Cyrus as a guest that she is torrenting — these all tell us that we are not only located within the mind and computer of a teenage girl, they tell us a lot about who this teenage girl is.

These details may seem minor — some of them I didn’t even catch the first time I watched the film — but they contribute to our understanding of Blaire as a naive teen. As I said, the film can be unintentionally humorous and Blaire and her cohort don’t exactly make the wisest choices, but they’re all teens, and if there’s one thing horror has taught us, it’s that teenagers don’t always think clearly when their lives are at stake.

Although the desktop format is unconventional, Gabriadze deftly employs the computer screen to communicate information to the audience in a way that is similar to conventional filmmaking. The Skype conversation shuffles the video feeds from the various participants so at times one or two characters appear larger on the screen because their video feed is displayed more prominently. This allows Gabriadze to emphasize a character’s speech because our attention is inevitably drawn to whoever is featured. In a sense, when one character is featured speaking to a second and then Skype shuffles so that second character is featured, Gabriadze is employing shot/reverse shot editing without the use of a cut.

In Searching, director Aneesh Chaganty, rather than use his chosen format in innovative ways to achieve the same effect that conventional cinema does, merely mimics conventional techniques. More often than not, the film zooms in on important information and frequently cuts from one part of the screen to another. This conveys a troubling lack of trust that Chaganty has in both the film he is making and the audience watching it. We know when a notification comes in that it contains potentially vitally important information and that we should read it without needing to have it so zoomed in that each word takes up the entire screen as David reads it.

There are also times when David will be looking at something on the screen while his own face is seen in the video feed and the film will zoom into what he is focusing on, thus depriving us of the opportunity to see his reaction to the image. John Cho is a talented actor who is more than capable of communicating David’s motivations during his search, but the work of a great actor is lost when Chaganty’s camera keeps him out of frame.

Searching also employs a traditional score that was a deliberate choice from the film’s creators. This may come down to personal preference, but, like the film’s use of editing, the score contributes to an overall impression that Searching aims not to use every aspect of the desktop format to its fullest potential, but to use this format when it is convenient, and to supplement this format with conventional cinematic techniques, as if Screen Life techniques aren’t enough on their own.

Additionally, while the Unfriended films remain locked in the perspectives of their lead characters, Searching, which starts strong with an opening montage that tells the Kim family’s story swiftly and with genuine emotional resonance, begins to feel anonymous by the film’s midpoint. When an important piece of information is revealed, the film cuts to a perspective that appears to be totally detached from David’s point of view. It feels as if the film so desperately wants to leave the desktop format at this point and become a conventional film.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying Searching is without its merits. There are some touches I really liked. A desktop screensaver is wisely used as a void-like image, one that Margot might as well be screaming into early on in the film when she attempts to contact her father in the middle of the night to no avail. I normally like these films to take place in real time, but this helped win me over to the idea that an extended period of time can work well. When David searches the case online, he comes across a Reddit board dedicated to Margot’s disappearance that will look uncannily realistic to anyone with a true crime obsession and an internet connection. There’s also at least one reference to Unfriended that eagle-eyed viewers should enjoy catching (I’m looking forward to a rewatch to find out if there’s more than one).

Searching also makes use of a device that I found lacking in Unfriended: Dark Web. In the first Unfriended film, Blaire frequently types out messages and then deletes them and retypes them before hitting send. In one instance Blaire almost reveals some information to her friends about their deceased classmate Laura Barns’s (Heather Sossaman) past, then rethinks this and deletes the message. This both provides the audience with expository information about Laura and reveals Blaire’s own psychology as she questions what to share with her friends.

In Dark Web, which is a standalone film that isn’t connected to the first movie, the protagonist, Matias (Colin Woodell), never retypes the messages he sends. On one hand, this can help quicken the pace, but I couldn’t help but feel that this was a missed opportunity to illuminate Matias’s thought process and his intentions. Watching a character work through what they are trying to tell someone and how they should phrase something imbues their message with a sense of importance. We overthink things most when they really matter to us.

In Searching, when David is texting Margot, there are a number of instances where he types something, considers what he’s written, and deletes it. This informs us that even though we’ve seen images suggesting the Kim family previously being close-knit, it’s clear that after the death of David’s wife and Margot’s mom, David and his daughter have had a complicated relationship, and he is unsure about how to communicate with her. The use of this device is a strong example of Searching using its format to its advantage.

The Screen Life subgenre is still young and it has plenty of room to grow. What I hope is that going forward, filmmakers will give credit to the intelligence of their audiences and refrain from overly relying on conventional techniques. The desktop format provides ample opportunities for information to be conveyed and for new and interesting cinematic techniques to flourish. Bekmambetov has plans to use this format for other genres, including comedies. Despite there being a few bumps in the road so far, I’m looking forward to whatever the future has in store for Screen Life films.

Anna Swanson is a Senior Contributor who hails from Toronto. She can usually be found at the nearest rep screening of a Brian De Palma film.