Computer screen mystery Searching is a well-oiled thrill machine

So far the genre of movies set on computer screens is a shallow pool. Following on from Open Windows, Unfriended, and other curiosities, here’s one called Searching. It might sound like faint praise to say it’s the best of the form so far, but Searching works so well that its gimmick mostly disappears, and the style seems more like an inevitability of the way we live our lives online.

It’s a cracking mystery procedural, following John Cho as he races to find his missing daughter via internet sleuth work. The setting keeps adding novelties, and also provides some effective shorthand: you see everything Cho types out in his online conversations, including the things he second-guesses and deletes.

A movie that spends around 90% of its runtime honed on its protagonist’s face is a big ask for an actor, so it’s a good thing Cho is more than up to the scrutiny. He’s hugely likeable, and it’s good to see him getting these weightier roles later in his career. Deborah Messing is a more surprising choice, but she’s effective, playing against type somewhat as a dour police detective.

Searching definitely isn’t arthouse fare. It’s a broad crowd-pleaser, with some fairly corny emotional beats and an overly-assertive score. The runtime also risks sagging when the film squeezes in references to true crime shows and web culture. But when it’s orchestrating the central mystery it’s like a well-oiled thrill machine. Suckers for a good red herring will surely be pleased.

And let’s hope the overall quality of this one means good news for the future of the genre, because producer Timur Bekmambetov apparently has a whole slew of these ‘screen life’ films on the way. As Searching proves, the fledgling genre has an unexpected amount of potential.