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Monday, March 27, 2023

How 'Searching' Nails Our Online Anxieties

One of the more charming slices of ‘90s-era web-culture ephemera is Pizza.net, the fake pie-delivery site frequented by Sandra Bullock’s hacker in 1995’s The Net. Though glimpsed only briefly in the movie, Pizza.net was clearly among the chillest faux-online services of the Clinton era. Check out its easy-clicking interface, its friction-free payment plan! The experience of using Pizza.net is so mellow, it will inspire you to throw on a flannel and cue up some Annie Lennox.

The Net was released back when Hollywood was still trying to combine high drama with high baud rates, resulting in movies like Hackers, Masterminds, the still-quite-charming Sneakers. Twenty years later, these films—and the technology they employed—are amusing for all sorts of reasons: Their clunkiness, their design, their forced edginess. And while these films were supposed to be thrillers, they make being online back then seem positively quaint. Granted, hacking into a police database from atop the Empire State Building probably felt dangerous in the '90s. But that's nothing compared to the everyday anxiety of being online in 2018.


Searching, the low-budget screen-gem that became one of the summer’s box-office surprises, might be the first movie to capture the ambient stress that comes with being constantly connected. It’s a two-tiered drama, one that unfolds largely among a series of desktop apps and websites. The initial focus of attention is David Kim (John Cho), a widowed father trying to track down Margot, his missing teenage daughter by commandeering her computer and social accounts and using them to piece together why she disappeared. It’s a thriller in which the shocks are delivered not by slowly opening closet doors, but by a series of quickly clicked-open windows.

Had Searching director Aneesh Chaganty been trying to create suspense in the same way 20 years ago, it likely would've felt as clunky as a teen's Livejournal—and probably wouldn't have made sense to half the audience. But in 2018 it feels all too real now that almost everyone is hyperconnected. "People who are making movies now grew up with tech in a way that has pervaded our lives," Chaganty says. "We have grown up with it around us so much that it would be wrong for us to do it any less than accurately."

But beyond its realism, there's another source of unease in Searching—one that becomes all the more pronounced on second viewing. Sitting in the theater, you’re essentially watching a giant computer monitor, one full of ongoing applications and conversations. All of them demand David’s attention—and yours. As Searching continues, David’s desktop grows more crowded and anxious, until it becomes a character in its own right—a bright grid of unopened emails, event-cluttered calendars, time-devouring text messages, callous YouTube comments, and blinking cursors.

Such digital-gridlock isn’t all that different from what’s on most desktops, of course. And after an hour or so of Searching, watching from afar as David deals with a flood of information, it's hard not to transfer your own tech anxiety onto the big screen: Is he going to let all of those emails pile up? When will he answer that incoming call? And just how easily could my parents break into my Facebook account? Depending upon where your eyes fall on the screen, you’ll see either an affirming tale of how technology can aid us, or an unsettling reminder of how crowded and needy and potentially ruinous our computers have become since the low-bandwidth heyday of Pizza.net. Or maybe both.

What’s most remarkable about Searching is the way it takes one of the oldest, most ineffective movie tropes of the last 25 years—that of a lone figure sitting at a computer, desperately awaiting information—and manages to make it compelling not just for a few seconds, but for an entire film. Part of its appeal is the way David’s online behavior mimics our own: The way we type out a long, venting text before re-considering and erasing it altogether; the way we catch our strange expression in a FaceTime video, and quickly correct ourselves. But maybe the real reason the movie works so effectively is that, while watching David struggle through a dense and semi-menacing online world, we're also quietly searching for ourselves.

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