Technology Will Save Us All: Optimized Optimism in the Searching Films

The one video on YouTube that never fails to bring me joy is Neil Cicierega’s “The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny”. The 3-minute-long music video is little more than a barrage of pop culture references and crude drawings thrown together with the endless excitement of a five-year-old swimming in an ocean of action figures for movies they’re probably too young to see. Sure, it’s funny and Cicierega has proven to be a very accomplished comedic songwriter in the 18 years since the video’s uploading to Newgrounds, but above all else, it feels to me like the internet still has promise. I was 7 when the video was released and couldn’t have been more than 12 when I first stumbled onto it. When coming across it a few years ago, I was shocked to know I still could recite most of the lyrics.

Something I think has gotten lost since the 2010s is how exciting and possible the internet made everything. Weird movies became sensations, long-thought exclusive games were translated into English, musicians turned into superstars, and independent visual artists finally had a platform for their work to explode. Outside of creative endeavors though, the possibility of knowledge, connection, and community was an even bigger draw to the early internet. There were nerd circles most notably, but every type of person could find a friend. We learned more about each other and became more open to new things. While it was obvious the internet would change the world, maybe, for a moment, it looked like the world would change for the unambiguous better.

That’s a little different, now. The internet has become corporatized: media personalities live and die on something as silly as Facebook’s artificial inflation of video numbers, technocrats have built a world of instant access only to wield them as horrifying weapons, and for every community of like-minded loners, there’s a community of like-minded loners (this joke doesn’t work without my inflection, just pretend I said the last few words in a more sinister tone).

While the cynicism about the internet hasn’t gone to the degree of fully validating the stereotypical Baby Boomer/GenX fears about men in basements coming to catch and kill anyone who forgets to blur out their mailbox numbers in a photo, it’s a less fun and carefree place to spend your time. Our digital footprints are becoming more and more massive, and every week you see someone, be it a literal child or a U.S. politician, make an ass of themselves for the world to see. There are stalkers and hate mobs and culture wars that seem to have less and less of a basis in reality.

And it’s also fucking cringe.

It is, isn’t it? Cringe to discuss the internet nowadays? Especially in film, a medium defined by its long production periods, having an honest discussion about something so malleable and ever-changing as the internet feels like a fool’s errand. Even when the internet is used as a backdrop for greater issues like last year’s Bodies Bodies Bodies or Glass Onion, there’s an air of simplicity to how it’s discussed. I don’t know if that’s fair to either film, both of which I like, but that unfairness is because discussion of online trends is used as synecdoche for the commodification of language and the empty ideas of billionaires, respectively.

I think for as much as these films try, and they do try very hard and very skillfully, using a traditional medium to criticize new media is a Sisyphean task, it will never not feel like an old man yelling at a cloud. So, what happens when the old man loves the Cloud?

(Note: the filmmaker at the center of this argument is only 7 years older than me, so calling him an old man is reductive but also—pretty funny)

Aneesh Chaganty’s 2018 screenlife thriller Searching is not a remarkable film, but it’s a tight, exceptionally inventive thriller led by John Cho’s magnetic charisma. The standalone sequel, 2023’s Missing, produced and with a story credit by Chaganty, features a similar degree of polish and a similarly strong central performance by Storm Reid.

Both films have a hell of a hook: the most important person in our lead character’s life has vanished, and our perspective follows the lead’s computer screen as they try to solve the mystery in time to bring their precious daughter or mother home. It’s a writer’s dream, allowing the films to pull a great deal of drama out of a single mouse movement, all collecting in a barrage of process and tension. These movies are really good.

Above all else, though, what makes these movies stand out to me is how excited they are by the idea of the internet. The degree of surveillance brought on by our online corporate overlords is definitely distressing, but the breadcrumbs leave enough clues for our amateur sleuths to inch ever closer to the truth. These films know better than to sit on a soap box and talk about how technology will kill us all, because we know that already. Instead, it looks to the light, seeing a situation that would be bleak and impossible even ten years prior, and allowing modernity to be the solution. It sounds like these films are almost propaganda, and I think that is a very valid, if monstrously bitter, take. The nuances of the internet do die here, even the hilariously giant bone to pick with true crime that Missing has feels like a deviation at points (and for films about the dangers of being discussed online, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On does it better).

These all sound like some degree of insults, but they really aren’t. The Searching films are about how the internet’s possibilities still exist, maybe now more than ever. They know smarter people will discuss the dangers of being online and are content with their taut power fantasies about truth being unveiled, evil being vanquished, and our pasts illuminating us as opposed to damning us.

I don’t know if the internet that the Searching duology believes in really exists, and at times I don’t know if the films believe in it either, instead hoping against hope that things will turn out okay because the tools are there for anyone to do anything. I talked earlier about how the information superhighway brought artists to great success and built communities, and no community is more important than two people who thought they’d never see each other again getting a chance, no matter how slim, to survive and rebuild.

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