'Searching' Is A Thriller For Our Digital Hellscape

If the horror genre is defined by trends, then this John Cho-led addition — playing out entirely on screens — is the latest pivot toward a fresh source of fear.
John Cho in "Searching."
John Cho in "Searching."

In the new thriller “Searching,” the terror unfolds on screens. Not the one you, the viewer, is watching ― but the ones the characters are watching: computers and smartphones with access to Skype, FaceTime, text messaging, spreadsheets, YouTube clips, Reddit threads, email, news broadcasts, GPS, Google.

The film focuses on a single father (John Cho) who enlists the help of a lauded detective (Debra Messing) in the search for his missing daughter (Michelle La). The seemingly reliable teenager, first introduced via a sweet montage that reveals her mother’s death from cancer, fails to come home one night, sending her protective dad into a tailspin. He’s determined to find her whereabouts by dissecting the life she led online ― one that doesn’t always square with his picture-perfect impressions. Every click, keystroke and ding risks yielding the next damning revelation.

In the hands of first-time feature director Aneesh Chaganty, the conceit achieves clever surprises despite wearing its narrative limitations on its sleeve. Pro: Aside from the DNA “Searching” shares with 2014′s “Unfriended” and its clunky sequel “Unfriended: Dark Web,” we’ve never seen a movie quite like this, where the action exists through pixels and buffers, and where unanswered texts are cause for the utmost panic.

Con: Even the smartest gadgets can only do so much, so using them to capture an IRL mystery requires contrivances. Why, for example, are webcams switched on even when they’re not recording? Why is everyone using FaceTime for every phone call, even ones placed feverishly in the middle of the night?

Debra Messing and John Cho in "Searching."
Debra Messing and John Cho in "Searching."

Still, something radical emerges in Chaganty’s machinery. If the horror genre is defined by trends ― “Frankenstein” did for monsters what “The Exorcist” did for demonic possessions; “Halloween” did for slashers what “The Amityville Horror” did for haunted houses ― then “Searching” is the latest pivot toward a fresh source of fear.

It’s an inversion of the found-footage fad, a low-budget subgenre that exploded when the video cameras used in 2007′s “Paranormal Activity” and 2008′s “Cloverfield” made horror feel like reality TV. Those movies and their offspring gave characters active relationships with modern technology; they chose to pick up a camcorder and document the nightmare, or perhaps they were already recording as they stumbled upon it.

In “Searching,” characters have a more passive relationship to technology ― not because they’re less ensconced in it, but because digital communication is an inevitability, to say the least. Amid such well-archived existences, of course an entire harrowing saga would unfurl from within their desktop folders and social media profiles. No one is ordering their friends to smile for the camera; everyone already expects to do so. Who needs a third party to capture your story when the contents of your life sit glued to your palm?

In other words, “Searching” is one of 2018′s timeliest movies.

Horror is, after all, where we go to work through our contemporary fears. The original “King Kong” could be read as a metaphor for the Great Depression. The nuclear panic of the 1950s gave us the radioactive beasts of “Godzilla” and “Creature From the Black Lagoon.” As the baby boom cooled, we got the formidable children of “The Omen” and “The Shining.” The AIDS era produced body horror like “The Fly” and “It.” With “Saw” and “The Descent,” modern survival became one big trap, sort of like a war we weren’t meant to fight. And now, with “Unfriended” and “Searching,” the overgrowth of technology infuses our latest collective dread ― a fitting development in the era of NSA surveillance, fake news, Cambridge Analytica and Trumpian tweetstorms. 

But there’s another crucial distinction with regard to “Searching." Already “Cloverfield” feels outdated; were it made today, the partygoers recording the Manhattan mayhem would need iPhones instead of camcorders. Moreover, the key to the found footage was in the externality of the events. Characters were filming the things happening to them, stand-ins for a director hungry for an exciting tale.

“Searching,” on the other hand, is tantamount to a collection of selfies. Everyone is filming themselves, even when they don’t mean to. And even if that helps to solve the case, it’s also what got us there in the first place.

The enigmas surrounding the missing girl in question multiply when her father realizes she’s crafted an internet persona that departs from what he knows of her in reality. That concept was explored in this summer’s stellar dramedy “Eighth Grade,” which could be jokingly called a horror movie of its own. But “Searching” presents the same concepts ― bifurcating identities, mindless self-preservation, the eternal quest for self-documentation, the effects of peer pressure in a digital marsh ― as fulcrums for a terror that’s unique to the 21st century.

Even for viewers who spot the film’s twist from a mile away, how it comes together is enlivening because the whole gimmick feels relatable. The suspense “Searching” captures may be traditional, but the apparatuses with which it’s conveyed are frighteningly current.