Have you ever had a movie that you were excited for? Maybe one that you wanted to see from the first trailer, but one that was also praised by critics upon release as well. You might have gone through the fun period in which you want to go to the local theater, but the theater does not get the film during its release. (Small town movie theaters are fun, but sometimes they are little sibling annoying. Some situation arises, even after you thought that the sibling was grown out of. (Think about an argument about the realism of Spongebob Squarepants) You then proceed to become angry for a relatively short period of time, anywhere from 2 minutes to 2 days. You keep talking to yourself and anybody else that is listening about this situation, expecting to be relieved at the possibility that someone else can relate to your pain. Then when that period is coming to an end, you think, “My sibling is 10 years old. This is normal!” and then go back to living life. This is how the small town movie theater scene is. It starts showing movies that you would never think you would see before home theater release, and you get hopeful that all the cool flicks will come to town. But, that is not the case because, you guessed it, IT’S A SMALL-TOWN MOVIE THEATER!) After a brief moment of sadness, or depression, you come to an understanding that you will be able to see the movie in just a few short months. You might then allow the memory of the excitement recess into chasms of your subconscious, being summoned only when the title of said film is mentioned in discussion or in something you are reading. Then the week comes and you see that it is available on certain streaming services, only to buy. You then run yourself through the moral and fiscal conundrum that this unfortunate setback calls for. The next move is waiting a couple weeks later when it is available to rent. You are ecstatic and you immediately rent the film without any thought of consequences, moral or fiscal. You wait a couple more days because you do not want to be disturbed, it needs to be a perfect viewing experience. You choose to wait until nine or ten o’clock and then start it (after the wife goes to bed because she doesn’t share your same burning movie passion). The euphoria that sweeps over you is palpable and you even pause it for a couple minutes before it starts because you want to make sure you have all the necessary items before you begin. Water? Check. Snack? Check. Phone out of arms reach so you will not be jonesing to check it every two minutes? Check. You are completely ready for this and you start the film, waiting to be blown away by whatever emotion you have been told that you would feel, or each one that you expect to feel. The movie ends and you realize…it sucked!
There is no feeling in the world that is more anger-inducing than the one that comes after watching a movie that you were excited for and realizing that it is actually not even in the same realm of what you were expecting. What film could cause such a reaction from a writer who has published (to his f*cking, lame a** blog!!! Said Reader X) mostly positive reviews? The tension that most likely has taken over your soul (Oh my gosh… SHUT UP! Said Reader Y), so here it is, Searching is not very good.
If you have not heard of this film, here is the quick backstory. A father searches for his missing daughter using her computer. Using various websites and social media, he offers the police help in the investigation. That plot line might have you at missing, investigation, police, or computer. So add up the excitement that you might have had just based on the plot alone, and add to it the fact that it is made to happen completely via FaceTime, or computer screen. A traditional thriller happening in a unique and modern way? What could go wrong?
According to many critics and audience members, nothing. Aneesh Chaganty’s computer screen thriller currently holds a stout 92 percent critical score and 88 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. Couple those numbers with the strong 71 on Metacritic and the 7.8 out of ten audience rating on IMDb, the film has near universal approval. The praise that is thrown at the film often credited Chaganty’s direction and script (also crediting co-writer Sev Ohanian), the editing, and acting performances by the film’s star John Cho. So, what could be the problem?
First and foremost, the story suffers from a case of too many endings and too many twists. There are moments were Searching could have easily ended while taking a bigger swing, but instead, it seemed like Chaganty and Ohanian decided to take the conservative route. The film is emotionally effective, but that is in spite of the duo’s script, not because of it. With so many twists and turns, it does not take long to realize the films ending. Usually, a thriller is a thriller because the ending is not too predictable, not because it is easy to predict. Some critics and audience members claim that the purpose for the amount of misdirection is to exemplify the complexity of the internet and social media. A convincing argument could be made as to why this is an effective storytelling strategy, but if it ruins the emotional impact of the story then it was not the best choice.
Before moving on, the acting of the film needs to be brought up. The acting in Searching is the “IT” factor. John Cho delivers a performance that, given the conditions that he had to work with (small, mostly stationary area in which to act), it deserves applause. Debra Messing (whose last name is awesome in the film’s context for all of us psychological eighth graders out there! In a movie about a MISSING person, Debra MESSING plays a key role! One vowel away from ironic Yahtzee.) is strong as well, providing mega storytelling efficiency in each of her scenes. While the story might have been lacking, the actors did everything they could to make this film provide on its premise.
Secondly, the editing is neat, but is it really that revolutionary? 2014’s Unfriended, a computer screen horror flick, made waves for executing on a similar concept. Hardcore Henry, an action film made from the first-person video game shooter perspective, also executed in an experimental genre, even if it gave you motion sickness (guilty). Does the fact that these films exist take away from what the creators of Searching accomplished? Absolutely not. But the existence of these films should be considered a footnote to any praise or criticism of Searching.
Finally, should a film that utilizes an innovative structure and storytelling approach be given praise just because it is unique? Well, yes and no. Yes, because if the innovation is truly groundbreaking or timely, it adds to cinema. No for a number of reasons. As so not to ramble on, think on this. One common refrain from the creators of films like Searching, Unfriended, and Hardcore Henry, is that they do not want their film to be considered a gimmick. Whether or not gimmick films are your cup of tea or not, they are an interesting case study for what the future of cinema holds. The one problem with a film being labeled as a gimmick is that the film will not be taken seriously.(“That was cool, but not very good,” is a common refrain that I imagine coming from someone who just walked out of a gimmick film) If the directors’ do not want their work to be considered a gimmick, then critics and the audience should not view it as a joke. Searching should not be given a free pass just because it tells an average, at best, story in a creative fashion. It should be treated as any other film. The effectiveness of the story ultimately gives the movie credibility. Yes, Aneesh Chaganty and his co-creators told a somewhat traditional thriller in a unique way, and that is worth something for sure. But just ask yourself, if Searching was told by conventional means, would you like it as much? If the answer is no, then maybe we should hold off on calling this film great and maybe just refer to it as a step in the right direction.
Thanks for reading! Curtis.