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We Live Half Our Lives Online — So Why Don't More Movies Show It?

John Cho's new movie Searching might be the first one you see that takes place entirely on a computer screen. But it probably won't be the last.

Posted on August 10, 2018, at 12:32 p.m. ET

A scene from Unfriended: Dark Web
Universal Pictures

A scene from Unfriended: Dark Web

One of the most unexpectedly memorable sequences in Bo Burnham’s new film Eighth Grade involves an emotionally intense interaction between a 13-year-old girl and her phone. After a long day of excruciating social awkwardness, middle schooler Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) hunkers down in bed and scrolls and likes and scrolls and stares in ways that'll be familiar to any devoted Instagram user. The app is allowed to fill the screen, or to cast light on Kayla's face in the dark of her room. She is a rapt audience of one, floating in space.

It's not just the tender familiarity of the scene that stands out — it's the evenhandedness, the way the movie shows social media as a fact of life, neither the cause of nor a solution to Kayla's adolescent loneliness. Kayla could make herself just as yearningly miserable studying yearbook photos as selfies. Eighth Grade acknowledges the extent to which our emotions and relationships are now mediated through digital channels without coming across as alarmist. That doesn't seem like it should be rare, but it is.

Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade.
A24

Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade.

It's not that we don't see people use computers and phones on film and TV. But characters don’t spend nearly as much time on them as we do in real life — unless they're part of a cautionary tale. When Aubrey Plaza befriend-stalks an online idol in Ingrid Goes West, or Emma Watson gets a job at a company working toward a privacy-free dystopia in The Circle, or Emma Roberts plays a game involving crowdsourced dares in Nerve, the message is inevitably that everything's gone too far. Hollywood has always sported a technophobic streak, and its tendency to treat the online world as cause for concern goes back almost as far as mainstream awareness of the internet — think of Sandra Bullock in 1995's The Net, ordering pizza from a website in a scene that was supposed to underscore her unfathomable isolation.

But the slowness to embrace immersion in the internet as a fact of life is probably due less to any deeply held moral stance against devices than to a more mundane problem: It's really hard to make someone using their phone or their computer look interesting. Or, to put it more broadly, it's really hard to convey the emotional nuance and richness of digital communication, the ways in which we now live half our lives online. Just figuring out how to make texting look dynamic has been an ongoing challenge for filmmakers and TV producers, who've experimented with splashing words onscreen or having messages pop up in bubbles. Even Eighth Grade, which folds all sorts of online elements into its miniature middle school drama, ultimately gets its biggest kicks not from internet use itself but from the contrast between the digital and the IRL.

Unfriended
Universal Pictures

Unfriended

And then there's Unfriended, a 2014 thriller that leaned so far into our device-laden reality, when everything else leaned away, that it actually took place entirely on a computer screen. Levan Gabriadze's found-footage feature about a group of teens being haunted on Facebook by a classmate's vengeful spirit wasn't the first movie to use that conceit — there had already been a viral 2013 short entitled Noah, created by two Canadian film students, as well as a less-convincing 2014 Nacho Vigalondo thriller called Open Windows. But Unfriended was the first full-blown movie-on-a-computer-screen hit. It was admired for the ingeniousness of its construction, how it builds suspense out of the spookiness of default avatars and uses a Skype group call to keep the actors' faces onscreen as the ghost starts menacing them. But it was also, maybe inevitably, regarded as a gimmick by many critics.

Unfriended may have been a novelty in 2014, but in 2018 it's providing the template for a growing collection of other desktop movies. In February, the Berlin Film Festival hosted the premiere of the most ambitious use of this format to date — the drama Profile, based on pseudonymous journalist Anna Erelle's account of investigating ISIS recruiters by posing as a 20-year-old recent convert to Islam online. That was followed by the Unfriended sequel Dark Web in July, this time featuring nefarious human antagonists instead of supernatural ones. Later in August, the Sundance thriller Searching will hit theaters, starring John Cho as a father doing some frantic online investigation into the life of his teenage daughter, who's gone missing from their suburban home. As in Unfriended, the main characters in these movies only appear on their screens via webcam, videos, photos, and, most importantly, their actions — their computer use revealing, gradually, who they are.

John Cho in Searching.
Sebastian Baron / Screen Gems

John Cho in Searching.

There is, in fact, a single figure behind this trend in movies — but not the millennial, tech-obsessed mastermind you might expect. Instead, it’s a 57-year-old Russian filmmaker and producer named Timur Bekmambetov, who made a name for himself with the huge homegrown blockbusters Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006) before heading to Hollywood for an uneven studio career that resulted in the likes of Wanted (2008) and Ben-Hur (2016). Now, he's devoting himself to building out an international empire on a concept he's come to call "Screenlife"; he’s served as the producer of all of these new screen-centric features and the director of Profile. [Editor's note: He has also worked with BuzzFeed News on a mobile-formatted documentary series called Future History.]

When I spoke with Bekmambetov on Skype recently, he rattled off a whole list of Screenlife movies that are currently in the works, spanning genres and continents. There’s a Cyrano de Bergerac–inspired comedy called Liked in postproduction, and a rowdy Russian Hangover-esque romp ready to go. Then there's a Romeo and Juliet set on smartphones, a sci-fi project and a fantasy one, plus a production slated to take place on the Chinese internet, on all of its specific social networks.

These Screenlife movies might sound gimmicky. But it’s hard to overstate how mesmerizing they can be. 

"I'm trying to stretch this format. It was important to me to try different things," he said. It's a conspicuously diverse slate of projects that comes from a more diverse array of young directors who've brought their own takes on the concept — Liked is the work of Marja-Lewis Ryan, fresh off her Netflix feature 6 Balloons, while Searching is the debut of Aneesh Chaganty, who a few years ago shot a viral short shot on Google Glass. Bekmambetov has talked about wanting to produce 50 of these movies a year.

Briefly summarized, these Screenlife movies might sound gimmicky. But it’s hard to overstate how mesmerizing they can be. Every time I've watched one with an audience, the crowd has let out a discomfited laugh the moment they first grasp what they're seeing, as they watch someone pull up a Spotify playlist, google something, or plead with a significant other over Facebook Messenger. It's not just the oddity of seeing the stuff of your desktop landscape writ large that's unsettling; it's the feeling that you've been inserted into the deeply personal relationship between someone and their device, that you're getting to peek into something intensely private, something you shouldn't get to see.

This is the year the desktop movie has announced its arrival, and proved that messaging apps, livestreams, and YouTube excavations are a format capable of sustaining all sorts of stories. What remains to be seen is whether we actually want to see the stuff of our small screens up on the big screen — or whether we'd rather just keep looking at our phones.

Timur Bekmambetov with Searching's John Cho, Aneesh Chaganty, and Debra Messing at Sundance 2018.
Tommaso Boddi / Getty Images

Timur Bekmambetov with Searching's John Cho, Aneesh Chaganty, and Debra Messing at Sundance 2018.

The seeds of Screenlife came from a Skype call Bekmambetov had with his producing partner, Olga Kharina, in 2013. She shared her screen to show him a poster, and forgot to turn the function off after. As she kept talking, he watched as she sent other messages, made an online purchase — all the things we might do on devices while communicating with someone else, because we've learned to compartmentalize and parcel out our attention. Suddenly he felt that he wasn't just getting to see Kharina’s computer — he was getting to see inside her mind. It was like voiceover, but better, he said, "much more cinematic, because you don't need to talk — you can just show what your character is doing on the screen." To Bekmambetov, the intimacy of this possible approach to filmmaking was a revelation — one that has since spurred over half a dozen completed features, with more in the works.

There is, of course, a pragmatic side to investing in these movies. The first Unfriended cost a reported $1 million and made over $64 million, and it was mostly assembled with motion graphics. Bekmambetov's company has since created software to make it easier and cheaper for filmmakers who work with him to produce these projects, though not all of them opt to use it. So he has a reason to talk up Screenlife (when I spoke with him, he was fresh off calling in to describe his concept to an audience of a few hundred in Moscow), and to insist that traditional movies have started to feel stale to him.

"I feel that I have seen these movies before,” he said. “I've seen this camerawork, the acting, the helicopter shots, and the visual effect shots." But at the same time, he comes across as sincerely evangelistic about the concept and its potential to tell all sorts of stories.

Bekmambetov has come to feel that Screenlife is not just a technique but a necessity in making movies about modern life. "The most important events of our life happen onscreen," he told me. "There's no way you can tell a story today about contemporary problems or characters without showing the screen of the character."

Valene Kane in Profile.
Bazelevs Entertainment

Valene Kane in Profile.

He's not wrong. Watching Profile — a provocative, uneasy duel of a movie between Amy (Valene Kane), a London journalist, and Bilel (Shazad Latif), the swaggering jihadi who reaches out to her — it's hard to imagine the narrative working any other way. The complicated dynamics between these characters develop exclusively over Facebook chats and cagey Skype calls, two people trying to figure each other out through the limited aperture of online interactions. They don't get to see each other's offline lives, and neither, really, do we.

The trick to these films is their specificity. Not just in the language — like the GIF-heavy exchanges Bilel amusingly and ominously turns out to prefer — but in the way people interact with technology, especially in private. There are no fake search engines to be found, and the unavoidable, immediate datedness of everything is embraced. When making Profile, Bekmambetov and his team realized that they were effectively making a period piece for which they'd have to recreate technology that had since changed. "All the websites, all the applications and extensions — they are different,” he said. "I understood that in two, three years you feel that it's retro." Searching also takes advantage of the idea of aging tech; at one point Cho’s character, David Kim, manages a form of time travel by booting up the old PC the family used to share in order to dig up phone numbers filed away by his late wife.

These films sprawl over continents, but they are, by design, claustrophobic.

The cast of Searching, which also includes Debra Messing, feels a few noticeable degrees more established than that of Profile and the Unfriended films. Cho, who's talked about how he was initially hesitant to join the film, was won over when Chaganty, the director, sold him on how cinematic the concept could be. It's proof that bigger talent can be enlisted into these movies, though Bekmambetov, with the fervor of a true believer, has become convinced that what we see the characters do within the scope of their screens is "much more important and much more emotional than just the face of the actor." The emotions he’s trying to capture are in smaller things, like what someone types into a field and then deletes without hitting send, he said. "There are a lot of moments in the movies where the audience is laughing, screaming, or jumping, or crying, just because they see how the mouse moves."

I feel like I should confess that I'm both enraptured with the idea of Screenlife and not entirely convinced of its breakout potential, of whether people would tolerate watching more than one or two movies in this format, much less something more expansive, like a television series. These films sprawl over continents — the main characters in Profile are in London and Syria (which Cyprus stood in for onscreen), while the college friends in Dark Web are scattered across the US and UK — but they are, by design, claustrophobic, an exercise in formal restraint by way of a computer screen. This is especially true in the purist form Bekmambetov prefers, in which the movie holds on a wide shot of a computer screen and requires the audience to try to follow along with what the character is doing, not guiding the eye with pans or zooms.

Unfriended: Dark Web
Universal Pictures

Unfriended: Dark Web

No matter how cunningly these movies build their narratives, they are still opting for a limited view of someone's life, constraining footage of their actors to shaky YouTube footage and the flatness of webcams. They look genuine, which is to say they look intensely unpretty. And this approach works with varying degrees of deftness, depending on which film you're watching.

I'd say Searching and Unfriended are the best of the bunch; both are genuinely suspenseful and speak to how we compartmentalize aspects of our lives online. Profile is admirably flawed, a movie that gets at how online communication can feel more authentic than the kind we do face-to-face, but it doesn't sell its main character's reckless transformation. Dark Web — which went to theaters with two different possible endings — is underwhelming despite a clever touch involving an imperiled character whose cellphone service goes in and out as she takes the subway. But the idea of committing to watch multiple desktop movies in a row, whatever their quality, feels like it could get stylistically stifling — a bit like opting to only read epistolary novels.

Specific, minor details are often more compelling than the main action in these movies, for all of Bekmambetov's emphasis on story. In Profile, what stuck with me is the way that Amy toggles between discussions with her boyfriend about splitting their bills 70/30 and doing research into European women who've gone off to join ISIS, a whiplash encapsulation of how the mundane and the alarming get flattened together online. In Searching, David scrolls past the hate mail he's been receiving from strangers who've heard about his missing daughter in the news, have decided he's the one responsible, and have taken it upon themselves to tell him so, an incidental but startlingly plausible addition.

The central plot in each movie eventually has to rely on an awkward contrivance or two to keep going. The details, on the other hand, are what help build these movies into fascinating snapshots of ordinary people: a high schooler whose close friends are more like frenemies, a flaky freelance writer who's more vulnerable to promises of being swept away and starting anew than she'd ever admit, an upper-middle-class San Jose widower who's been avoiding tough talks with his daughter, and a programmer who's devoted his time to write an app to communicate with his deaf girlfriend, when she just wants him to learn ASL. Through the accumulated detritus of their digital lives, we get to see these characters clearly and intimately, in a way that (at least without spyware) they’ll never be able to see other people.

Michelle La in Searching.
Screen Gems

Michelle La in Searching.

That theme runs through these movies, regardless of their genre — that we're more honest in our use of technology than we are with the people in our lives, who only get to see the parts of us we choose to show them. Amy and Bilel are functionally catfishing each other in Profile, telling each other what they think the other person wants to hear while offering the occasional glimpse of authenticity. The characters in Unfriended have been harboring all sorts of friend-group betrayals that get forced into the open. In Searching, David pries open his daughter's online work, and has to figure out how well he really knows her — if she has normal teen secrets or darker, more serious ones that might have led her to run away.

It's only us, the audience, who get to see the main character's unguarded self though their juggling of windows, their browsing, and their taking or ignoring of calls. In doing that, these movies demand we think about our own shifting relationships with our devices — the degree to which we've outsourced part of our minds to them, to which they contain records of our memories and our planned futures.

Bekmambetov considers these movies to all be about morality, which is not to say they're concerned with moralizing about online addictions or overloading on screentime. Rather, they are, as he puts it, stories about figuring out how to navigate a time in which technology is shifting not just the way we live our lives but how we behave toward other people.

"I think we all, as a society, feel fear because we don't understand how this world is constructed and what our role is in it,” he told me. “There are not enough fairy tales, myths, and legends made for us to feel comfortable in this world." So maybe these are fables for the new reality of an online age. But they're also a kind of mirror — not a black one, but a steady digital reflection of what we do when left to, and with, our own devices. They reflect how we behave when the whole wide web is open to us but, at least as far as we know, no one can see what we do with it.

You could look at these films as putting us in the position of a hacker, invading someone's privacy and spying on their digital life and all the personal information contained within. But I tend to think of it more as being allowed to play a kind of semi-omniscient god, hovering above these characters and getting to see everything they do onscreen, being dared to cast judgment on them — and in doing so, on ourselves. ●

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