We Live Half Our Lives Online — So Why Don’t More Movies Show the idea?

John Cho’s brand new movie Searching might be the first one you see in which takes place entirely on a computer screen. although the idea probably won’t be the last.

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

Universal Pictures

A scene by the 2014 movie Unfriended: Dark Web.

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

the idea’s not just the tender familiarity of the scene in which stands out — the idea’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 as well as relationships are today mediated through digital channels without coming across as alarmist. in which doesn’t seem like the idea should be rare, although the idea will be.


Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade.

the idea’s not in which we don’t see people use computers as well as phones on film as well as TV. although 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 will be inevitably in which everything’s gone too far. Hollywood has always sported a technophobic streak, as well as 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 by a website in a scene in which was supposed to underscore her unfathomable isolation.

although the slowness to embrace immersion within the internet as a fact of life will be probably due less to any deeply held moral stance against devices than to a more mundane problem: the idea’s truly hard to make someone using their phone or their computer look interesting. Or, to put the idea more broadly, the idea’s truly hard to convey the emotional nuance as well as richness of digital communication, the ways in which we today live half our lives online. Just figuring out how to make texting look dynamic has been an ongoing challenge for filmmakers as well as 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 by internet use itself although by the contrast between the digital as well as the IRL.

as well as then there’s Unfriended, a 2014 thriller in which leaned so far into our device-laden reality, when everything else leaned away, in which the idea 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 in which 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. although Unfriended was the first full-blown movie-on-a-computer-screen hit. the idea was admired for the ingeniousness of its construction, how the idea builds suspense out of the spookiness of default avatars as well as uses a Skype group call to keep the actors’ faces onscreen as the ghost starts menacing them. although the idea was also, maybe inevitably, regarded as a gimmick by many critics.

Unfriended may have been a novelty in 2014, although in 2018 the idea’s providing the template for a growing collection of various other desktop movies. In February, the Berlin Film Festival hosted the premiere of the most ambitious use of in which 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. in which was followed by the Unfriended sequel Dark Web in July, in which 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 by their suburban home. As in Unfriended, the main characters in these movies only appear on their screens via webcam, videos, photos, as well as, most importantly, their actions — their computer use revealing, gradually, who they are.

Sebastian Baron / Screen Gems

There will be, in fact, an individual figure behind in which trend in movies — although not the millennial, tech-obsessed mastermind you might expect. Instead, the idea’s a 57-year-old Russian filmmaker as well as producer named Timur Bekmambetov, who made a name for himself with the huge homegrown blockbusters Night Watch (2004) as well as Day Watch (2006) before heading to Hollywood for an uneven studio career in which resulted within the likes of Wanted (2008) as well as Ben-Hur (2016). today, 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 brand new screen-centric features as well as 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 in which are currently within the works, spanning genres as well as continents. There’s a Cyrano de Bergerac–inspired comedy called Liked in postproduction, as well as a rowdy Russian Hangover-esque romp ready to go. Then there’s a Romeo as well as Juliet set on smartphones, a sci-fi project as well as 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. although the idea’s hard to overstate how mesmerizing they can be. 

“I’m trying to stretch in which format. the idea was important to me to try different things,” he said. the idea’s a conspicuously diverse slate of projects in which comes by a more diverse array of young directors who’ve brought their own takes on the concept — Liked will be the work of Marja-Lewis Ryan, fresh off her Netflix feature 6 Balloons, while Searching will be 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. although the idea’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 that has a significant various other over Facebook Messenger. the idea’s not just the oddity of seeing the stuff of your desktop landscape writ large in which’s unsettling; the idea’s the feeling in which you’ve been inserted into the deeply personal relationship between someone as well as their device, in which you’re getting to peek into something intensely private, something you shouldn’t get to see.

in which will be the year the desktop movie has announced its arrival, as well as proved in which messaging apps, livestreams, as well as YouTube excavations are a format capable of sustaining all sorts of stories. What remains to be seen will be whether we actually want to see the stuff of our modest screens up on the big screen — or whether we’d rather just keep looking at our phones.

Tommaso Boddi / Getty Images

Timur Bekmambetov with Searching‘s John Cho, Aneesh Chaganty, as well as Debra Messing at Sundance 2018.

The seeds of Screenlife came by a Skype call Bekmambetov had with his producing partner, Olga Kharina, in 2013. She shared her screen to show him a poster, as well as forgot to turn the function off after. As she kept talking, he watched as she sent various 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 as well as parcel out our attention. Suddenly he felt in which he wasn’t just getting to see Kharina’s computer — he was getting to see inside her mind. the idea was like voiceover, although better, he said, “much more cinematic, because you don’t need to talk — you can just show what your character will be doing on the screen.” To Bekmambetov, the intimacy of in which possible approach to filmmaking was a revelation — one in which has since spurred over half a dozen completed features, with more within the works.

There will be, of course, a pragmatic side to investing in these movies. The first Unfriended cost a reported $1 million as well as made over $64 million, as well as the idea was mostly assembled with motion graphics. Bekmambetov’s company has since created software to make the idea easier as well as cheaper for filmmakers who work with him to produce these projects, though not all of them opt to use the idea. So he includes 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), as well as to insist in which traditional movies have started out to feel stale to him.

“I feel in which I have seen these movies before,” he said. “I’ve seen in which camerawork, the acting, the helicopter shots, as well as the visual effect shots.” although at the same time, he comes across as sincerely evangelistic about the concept as well as its potential to tell all sorts of stories.

Bekmambetov has come to feel in which Screenlife will be not just a technique although a necessity in producing 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.”

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

The trick to these films will be their specificity. Not just within the language — like the GIF-heavy exchanges Bilel amusingly as well as ominously turns out to prefer — although within the way people interact with technology, especially in private. There are no fake search engines to be found, as well as the unavoidable, immediate datedness of everything will be embraced. When producing Profile, Bekmambetov as well as his team realized in which they were effectively producing a period piece for which they’d have to recreate technology in which had since changed. “All the websites, all the applications as well as extensions — they are different,” he said. “I understood in which in two, three years you feel in which the idea’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, although they are, by design, claustrophobic.

The cast of Searching, which also includes Debra Messing, feels a few noticeable degrees more established than in which of Profile as well as 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. the idea’s proof in which bigger talent can be enlisted into these movies, though Bekmambetov, with the fervor of a true believer, has become convinced in which what we see the characters do within the scope of their screens will be “much more important as well as 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 as well as then deletes without hitting send, he said. “There are a lot of moments within the movies where the audience will be laughing, screaming, or jumping, or crying, just because they see how the mouse moves.”

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

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 as well as the flatness of webcams. They look genuine, which will be to say they look intensely unpretty. as well as in which approach works with varying degrees of deftness, depending on which film you’re watching.

I’d say Searching as well as Unfriended are the best of the bunch; both are genuinely suspenseful as well as speak to how we compartmentalize aspects of our lives online. Profile will be admirably flawed, a movie in which gets at how online communication can feel more authentic than the kind we do face-to-face, although the idea doesn’t sell its main character’s reckless transformation. Dark Web — which went to theaters with two different possible endings — will be underwhelming despite a clever touch involving an imperiled character whose cellphone service goes in as well as out as she takes the subway. although the idea of committing to watch multiple desktop movies in a row, whatever their quality, feels like the idea 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 will be the way in which Amy toggles between discussions with her boyfriend about splitting their bills 70/30 as well as doing research into European women who’ve gone off to join ISIS, a whiplash encapsulation of how the mundane as well as the alarming get flattened together online. In Searching, David scrolls past the hate mail he’s been receiving by strangers who’ve heard about his missing daughter within the news, have decided he’s the one responsible, as well as have taken the idea upon themselves to tell him so, an incidental although 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 various 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 as well as starting anew than she’d ever admit, an upper-middle-class San Jose widower who’s been avoiding tough talks with his daughter, as well as 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 as well as intimately, in a way in which (at least without spyware) they’ll never be able to see various other people.

Screen Gems

Michelle La in Searching.

in which theme runs through these movies, regardless of their genre — in which 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 as well as Bilel are functionally catfishing each various other in Profile, telling each various other what they think the various 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 in which get forced into the open. In Searching, David pries open his daughter’s online work, as well as has to figure out how well he truly knows her — if she has normal teen secrets or darker, more serious ones in which might have led her to run away.

the idea’s only us, the audience, who get to see the main character’s unguarded self though their juggling of windows, their browsing, as well as their taking or ignoring of calls. In doing in which, 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 as well as our planned futures.

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

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

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

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