The Screens We Live In: On ‘Searching’ and ‘Unfriended’

General uncertainty brews on the horizon since the onset of COVID-19 restrictions. Even after a few months, I still feel the anxiety of how my life and others’ will pan out during these trying times. In the beginning, my days blurred into each other as I was spending most of my time at home like many others. Film was a welcome distraction amongst the chaos going on in the world. Since quarantine started, I have logged twice the number of movies I have seen last year.

The last time I ventured into the pre-COVID world, I wanted to treat myself by watching Portrait of Lady on Fire. I didn’t have to think about hugging a friend and wearing a mask back then. Now, I cannot wrap my head around the new theater experience. There is always a sense of lingering anxiety; The Guardian’s Wendy Ide describes this fear as “hardwired into us.”

Besides, the hassle of commuting to your nearest theatre and going through all the screening tests may hinder your theatre experience. The easier (and safer!) option is to watch a film from home. But even though new competitors like streaming services pop up every day, there seems to be optimism for the cinema experience from the industry. Ben Roberts, chief executive of the British Film Institute, tells The Guardian, “The nation will be poorer, experiences will have to justify the cost, which is why subscription models and memberships are popular. However, the cinema experience is unique and I’m confident that audiences will start to cautiously return.”

Even as restrictions loosen in my city, Toronto, most of my friends feel too anxious to go outside unless necessary. That said, restrictions are different for each country, and these help shape the attitudes moviegoers will have. Perhaps we don’t even need to wait any sooner to see what audiences will do: the return of renowned film festivals last September, such as the Toronto International Film Festival, New York Film Festival, and Venice International Film Festival, shows nothing will stop film lovers.

That said, the pandemic still changed the landscape of film forever. In an NME article, Paul Bradshaw writes that films shown after coronavirus may be very different. He observed that after gloomy events in the world, films take a turn to either serious realistic matters or fun fare.

In reflection of these new circumstances, I will analyze Unfriended (2014) and Searching (2018), two movies that illustrate the possible trajectory of post-COVID cinema.

Unfriended (2014)

Unfriended is a horror movie for modern times, taking place entirely on a laptop screen. It demonstrates how internet attention is valued more than real-life relationships. The need for attention becomes insatiable to the point that harming others is not questioned. For the high schoolers in Unfriended, this is evident in how Laura Barns’ peers, even her own friends, responded to the viral video of her passing out and embarrassing herself at a party. Her peers have grown detached from the person on the screen, seeing her instead as entertainment. Laura kills herself shortly after the video was posted. The remaining characters communicate with each other through a Skype call in a discussion about their prom. Laura’s ghost haunts their call in a horrid take of revenge. Social media is fully utilized here from a filmmaking standpoint: Laura’s ghost reveals their betrayals through videos and controlling their social media accounts. 

The format of the film is surprisingly timely during the pandemic. In the eighth episode of the Letterboxd podcast, Letterboxd’s editor-in-chief brings up that lockdown can change the landscape of film production. There is a possible rise in the use of Unfriended’s Skype format. Filmmakers will have to find alternatives to adjust to the circumstances, and they will need to solve new challenges like having to direct actors from a distance. They can also focus more on the meat of the movie now that the visual and technical aspects are limited; this could create a more powerful and engaging story that fully utilizes this new exploratory medium.

Searching (2018)

Like Unfriended, Searching takes place within the parameters of a laptop screen. The film is indicative of how we can create personas online to make people like us. Unconsciously or consciously, the social media accounts we have are geared to appeal to a certain person: maybe yourself, or your peers. Regardless, it is done to be noticed; this is the major reason behind posting on the internet after all. From well-intentioned civilians to creeps, there is a certain appeal to recreating yourself as someone much different.

In the film, Robert has been crushing on Margot since grade school. He decides to get close to her in the worst possible way: luring her in online with a completely different persona. He befriends her, then takes advantage of her caring and trusting nature. Robert expresses regret when he realizes his catfishing has gone too far. This shows how our intentions don’t outweigh the actual actions we create; our actions are what ultimately matter in the end.

The format of Searching comes to life through the multiple technologies and points-of-view used: laptop cameras, go-pros, drones, hidden cameras, and TV screens, among others. Searching director Aneesh Chaganty tells the Letterboxd podcast that he explored every direction that the story can take place in. He shares that he thought of it happening on the ground or in a coffin, before settling on the laptop screen. He believes that the limited format can be fully utilized if filmmakers don’t try to be something they’re not. The format can also lend itself to investment in good actors like John Cho, who plays Margot’s father.

Chagnty also pointed out that with everyone stuck at home, filmmakers and late-night talk show hosts have the same tools for the media they are making. Quarantine does not kill filmmaking; and while the industry is currently bearing this massive disruption, the future of cinema isn’t all bleak.

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