Missing desktop movie movies

Missing takes the desktop movie to new levels

3.5 out of 5 stars

Since Unfriended introduced a mainstream audience to desktop movies (also called “screen life”) nearly a decade ago, several films have sought to replicate its success. The first movie occurred in real-time and unfolded primarily over a Skype call. In 2023, the latest entry in the genre, Missing, takes things to new levels. The makers of Searching, a desktop movie that starred John Cho as a father trying to find his daughter, reversed the roles to depict an 18-year-old girl, June (Storm Reid), on the hunt for her mother. Everything unfolds on a computer screen.

When I first saw Searching, I was disappointed that it broke from the constraints laid out by many of the earlier genre films. It not only broke with the “real-time” conceit still often employed but featured zooms intended to replicate a user focusing their attention on elements rather than the totality of the screen. For me, at least, the purity and rigour of being forced to watch a full screen was part of the appeal. 

Missing took those zooms and brought them into overdrive. It features rapid-fire editing and “close-ups” and uses different computers to invoke other points of view. As the film opens, we are similarly treated to software over a decade old, using old operating systems to evoke shifts in time (which was also used in Timur Bekmambetov’s Profile). The screenplay is penned by the director of Searching but directed by two newcomers, Nicholas D. Johnson and Will Merrick.

The style that slightly irked me in Searching works far better here. It draws us into the point of view of a Zoomer on the brink; she wants to party but also grapples with her mother dating a new man, her first long-term relationship after her father’s death. The film opens with a video recorded on a camcorder of a happy family when June was just a toddler. As we fast forward over a decade, June impatiently waits for her mother to leave on a romantic vacation to Colombia so she and her friends can party hard for a week. 

Missing 2023 film desktop movie
Missing takes the desktop movie to new levels

When June goes to pick up her mother at the airport, though, her mother never appears. She calls the hotel, only to find that her mother and boyfriend have left all their belongings behind. With no money and a Google Translate-level Spanish, she uses all her computer know-how to find traces of her mother. Much like Searching, the film features escalating and bizarre twists that might test the audience’s ability to check out and turn off their brain, but if you’re willing to go in for the ride, it’s an undeniably good, thrilling ride. 

While desktop movies predate even Unfriended, as a stylistic choice, they touch on something incredibly modern. They reproduce digital worlds and operate under the rhythms of navigating the internet and a screen. It should be no surprise that a decade after Unfriended, things have only gotten faster. They are more frantic as the line between our digital and analogue selves becomes increasingly blurred. The suspense, derived from expected and established tropes, also draws heavily on the anxieties exclusive to our online lives. For better or worse, the movie captures modern life’s overwhelming stimulation.

It also does a fairly good job at lampooning the rising tide against true crime coverage. June is a fan of a popular (fictional) true crime TV show at the beginning, and we witness her disillusionment in online communities aimed at “solving crimes” and “asking questions” in a way that distort facts and reality. The film allows the viewers to get caught up in possible theories, bombarded by TikToks and Facebook posts of online sleuths making wild assumptions about June and her mother. It all anticipates the inevitable recreation of June’s “horror story” for the small screen.

While not my favourite desktop movie, Missing continues to build on the style, and for fans of unconventional horror films (that are no less palatable to mainstream audiences), you can’t go wrong here. The film’s final act stretches some of the audience’s suspension of disbelief, going for a narrative spectacle most people won’t see coming. Yet, overall the film is a delightful and suspenseful experience. ■

Missing (directed by Nicholas D. Johnson and Will Merrick)

Missing opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Jan. 20.

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