“[T]echnology promises us lives on the screen. What values, Thoreau would ask, follow from this new location? Immersed in simulation, where do we live, and what do we live for?”
In 2010, we saw what I believed to be one of the most significant cross-sectional looks into the future designer-relationship-model rooted in the on-line experience. The film was promoted exceptionally well as a seeming suspense thriller, but ended up being a sappy study of culture & society. Through it all, what Catfish managed to achieve (now through its 7th season with MTV) despite its repetitiveness and virtue signaling, is a profound look into the state of our internet culture, where evolutionary urges for acceptance and togetherness has wrought a fundamental psychological virus of self-deception. It’s incredible and at the same time deeply upsetting.
And so with that, enters Searching: undeniably “both novel and accomplished,” but at the same time, thin and largely uninspired by the true complexity that the writer/director (Aneesh Chaganty) could have mined. Eddie Harrison (The List) gets some of this:
“How the internet impacts modern life would be a timely theme for a techno-thriller; unfortunately Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching makes only fleeting reference to growing concerns about data mining and how information is used.
Without spoiling too much, Searching, to quote Todd McCarthy (Hollywood Reporter): “in its first few minutes breathlessly demonstrates how the essentials of a family’s life can be portrayed online.” For those of us who lived through the advent of AIM, Facebook, and MySpace, those first few minutes were devastatingly nostalgic. After a daugther (Michelle La) goes missing, the father (John Cho – also found a good project in Columbus) is forced to voyage through her various online forums (e.g. Instagram, Tumblr, some voyueristic online chat site I’ve never heard of before) to find clues of her whereabouts and who she may have become. Without probing enough into the realities of our online identities, the film moves away into the searching of a loss body and a father lost in his searching online for a lost daughter. In the end, despite the constant social upkeep, he comes to understand how little he truly knew about his daughter and the ease that parent’s allow their children to escape into a world of predators and constant conformity triggers. As Kate Erbland (IndieWire) writes, when “two people [are] able to connect through so many different means, it’s shockingly easy for one of them to slip through the crack.” Things unfold, things are fully explained, the audience is taken for a ride, and left largely unaffected by the films own searching on the value of technology.
Now, take the film editing and premise. Add the darkness of a Zvyagintsev’s Loveless or Fincher’s Social Network. Find actors with some range and a writer with the intellectual potential to introduce nuance and understanding concerning what Niall Ferguson recently explored in his effort “to reframe the entirety of human history as an endless tug-of-war between eras in which powerful hierarchical institutions predominate only to be undermined by the influence of emerging networks.” And, you have something truly awe-inspiring.
Searching at times felt like the recent Facebook infomercial striving to restore its corrosive reputation through self-righteous idealism while ignoring the reality that, in a world of sin, no paradise can be expected on a platform without unlimited potential for the all too human element to express itself. The film felt more motivated by style and plot surprises than presenting an informed look into the online dimensions in the vein of our Westworld existence. We are, in the words of Sherry Turkle, alone together.
If the Internet of 1995 was a postmodern playhouse, allowing individuals to engage in unbridled expression, Turkle describes it today as a corporate trap, a ball and chain that keeps us tethered to the tiny screens of our cellphones, tapping out trite messages to stay in touch. She summarizes her new view of things with typical eloquence: “We expect more from technology and less from each other.”
Sure, the film did not strive for a cinematic masterpiece in writing. But when you’ve been given an opportunity to speak truth to a captive audience, you have to do more with your moment than simply entertain them. Like the frantic father whose life becomes tethered to the screen seeking the information that brings peace, Chaganty could have spoken life into the idea that this generation lives to “[c]onstantly flip between open browser windows . . . [to] add to the mystery” of our alienation. Searching, in more ways than one, could have been a film that helps us expect more from each other and collectively help us find our way home.