Over the past decade as technology has improved and our relationship with technology and social media has changed, we’ve started to see a host (no pun intended) of films that are set entirely on computer screens. Notable examples include Searching, Host (2020) as well as Unfriended and its sequel. These films are all so innovate and clever in how all of the film’s action takes place within a computer screen or on a tablet or phone screen. We all spend so much time on our phones and computers and these films capture the essence of what it’s like to live both online and offline. They’ve all been very successful which is why a whole slate of screenlife films are coming out soon and the latest one Profile was released in UK cinemas on August 6.
The idea of having a whole film taking place like this opens up so many doors for filmmakers because it allows them to tell stories in completely new and original ways. When The Blair Witch Project came out in 1999 it opened up a whole new genre of found-footage films and the desktop film that takes place entirely on computer screens is almost an extension of that and a more contemporary version of the found footage film. There’s so much potential in this method of filmmaking to truly immerse the audience in the story and in the world of the film.
For instance, in 2014, Unfriended showed us just how effective this method of storytelling could be. Seeing all the action unfold on a screen over Skype, the threat against the characters in the film feels so much more real when it’s all coming from a computer screen. We can all relate so much to seeing characters on the internet or on a Skype call. The setting of it all taking place on a screen really helps to draw you into the world of the film in a way that so many other horror films struggle to do. It’s like how single location films draw you in and thrust you into that feeling of claustrophobia except here the single location is the vast world of the internet where absolutely anything is possible. And yet that vast world feels incredibly restrained. Unfriended was such a big success that it spawned a sequel Unfriended: Dark Web and at the box office it took over $64 million against its shoestring budget of just $1 million. Unfriended was one of the first mainstream films to use this format and it showed just how popular it could be and how much people liked it.
Another notable example of this method of making films is Searching, a film about a father (John Cho) who is trying to find his missing daughter and, once again, it all takes place on his daughter’s laptop as he searches for clues and answers as to where she might be. Searching is packed full of shocking twists and turns that you could never see coming and it’s so suspenseful, not least because of excellent writing from Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian, but because of the way the film feeds us information through the various screens. The way we see text messages and emails appear or the conversations we see on FaceTime all make the film so much more interesting to watch and so much more immersive. It feels almost as if we’re the ones on the laptop looking at this information rather than watching a film.
As well as making the main storyline that bit more immersive by taking place on a computer, Searching is full of tiny easter eggs and jokes that appear in the background of each shot. If you pay attention to the film, there’s actually an alien invasion sub-plot happening at the same time as the main plot. If you look closely at news stories in internet tabs in the background or YouTube videos that appear on the side bar in the recommended section, you’ll see stories about an “anomaly in the sky” or footage of alien sightings. In fact, the scale of the alien invasion gets progressively bigger as the film goes on with the President set to make an announcement by the end of the film. It’s the sort of subplot that you would never notice until it’s pointed out to you but there’s a wealth of material and easter eggs hidden in the background of every single scene and there’s so much information hidden within each shot that the more you watch Searching the more you realise how clever and intelligent the film really is. Perhaps when Searching 2 comes out soon we might get to see how the alien invasion sub-plot ended.
The reason why films like Searching and Unfriended were so successful is because they fit the format so well. But does everything suit this format? What about, say, a Shakespearean classic? Well that’s exactly what’s happened as a new adaptation of the timeless love story Romeo and Juliet premiered at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and R#J is due to be released soon. R#J is confined to only screens, and it mainly takes place on phone screens, but the film doesn’t entirely work. It’s certainly an interesting idea to bring Shakespeare into the digital world and there are a lot of interesting, if somewhat questionable, creative choices taken in R#J but nonetheless the film highlights how impressive this new method of filmmaking is. Perhaps Romeo and Juliet isn’t a story anyone wanted to see told this way and perhaps it’s not the best fit for this format but seeing what choices the filmmakers made and seeing what changes they made from the original text (and there are quite a few changes) make it a really fresh and innovative re-telling. Adapting Shakespeare is never an easy task but bringing it into the digital age is even more difficult and whilst R#J doesn’t quite hit all the marks it’s a worthy addition into the ever-growing collection of desktop films.
The latest film to make use of this format is the riveting Profile starring Valene Kane and Shazad Latif which released in UK cinemas on August 6th. Kane plays journalist Amy Whittaker who sets up a fake Facebook profile of a young woman who’s recently converted to Islam in order to attract and expose an ISIS terrorist recruiter. The film is based on the nonfiction bestseller In the Skin of a Jihadist and is one of the most suspenseful films of the past decade. The way that director Timur Bekmambetov manages to create tension and threat is absolutely incredible. Once again, everything happens solely on Amy’s computer screen and whilst at first the peril is only virtual and you think there’s no real threat, it becomes so real so quickly and we’re fearing for Amy’s life despite living thousands of miles away from ISIS recruiter Bilel in Syria. Profile is a story that’s suited to the screenlife format so well. Being wholly contained within a computer screen makes everything in the film feel so much more claustrophobic and increases the fear and level of paranoia. I can’t imagine this story being told in any other way. Seeing everything happening on Amy’s computer and seeing the interactions in the film happening over Skype immerses you into the world of the film in a way that’s unlike any other method of storytelling. And as a result, you end up entirely invested in the film, making it all the more suspenseful.
Watching the events of a film take place entirely on phone screens and computer screens is an incredibly exciting new way of telling stories. As some of the better films like Searching and Profile have shown us, it works so well as a way of telling these stories. Whilst not every story would suit this method and we wouldn’t want every film told like this, it’s a really innovate modern way that’s moving the thriller and horror genres in a new direction and really providing audiences with something new. It’s going to be very exciting to see where this type of film goes next and what other wonderfully inventive films come out in the next few years.