When I think of movie sequels that best their originals, what come to mind are the ones that go bigger, broader, and cartoonishly extreme, exploding the comparatively timid premises of their source texts – titles like Gremlins 2, Ghoulies 2, Child’s Play 2, Paddington 2, Batman Returns, and Magic Mike XXL. In all of those examples, though, I still like the original films that preceded them, which is more than I can say for the volatile, twisty screenlife thriller Missing. Missing is a spin-off sequel to one of my least favorite entries in the screenlife genre, Searching (a film that I should note Britnee reviewed very positively for this site back in 2018). Searching wasn’t embarrassing in the way that lower-budget screenlife schlock like Safer at Home and Untitled Horror Movie can be, but I still resented it for cleaning up a trashy genre I love for its illogical technophobic fearmongering by turning it into safe, This Is Us-style melodrama. Laptop-POV thrillers should prey on the eeriness of life on the internet, not act as tech-friendly advertisements that constantly reassure parents their terminally online children are actually doing okay. It was basically Unfriended for the corniest of suburbanites, a perspective I was happy to see dropped in its much meaner, trashier sequel.
Missing improves on the Searching formula in practically every way, most of all in how it maintains a healthy paranoia around modern tech even while explaining why it’s useful (and in how it’s willing to put its characters in actual, sustained danger instead of just pretending to). Storm Reid stars as the mouse-clicking, keyboard clacking internet detective du jour, a teenager who investigates the sudden disappearance of her mother—lost while vacationing in Colombia—from her laptop control room in California. Missing‘s tone echoes the hokey schmaltz of Searching‘s parent-child melodrama, scoring its petty mother-daughter tensions with heart-tugging piano flourishes you’d expect to hear in an engagement ring jewelry store commercial. Only, while Reid clicks away at the Ring cameras, location trackers, search histories, password workarounds, and username paper trails at her fingertips to solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance, she’s revealing more than just the speedbumps & heartbreaks of modern familial bonds; she’s also cataloging the tools of the modern surveillance state. The surface-level text of the film details the twists & turns of a Dateline-style “true” crime mystery and subsequent familial grief, while the glaring subtext is all about how deep privacy-invading technology has already seeped into our daily lives in ways we’ve learned to ignore, simply because it’s convenient.
One of the major things I love about screenlife thrillers (and one of the major reasons they’re dismissed as frivolous novelties) is their nimble ability to document of-the-moment trends in modern life online. It’s something most other genres are scared to touch for fear of looking gimmicky or dated, despite computer screens accounting for so much of the visual data most audiences absorb on a daily basis. There’s something fearlessly honest about engaging with that supposedly uncinematic imagery, but I also just like to imagine how incomprehensible screenlife aesthetics would be to earliest cinemagoers who were astounded by The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station in 1896. For its part, Missing doesn’t have many updates in modern screenlife to document, except maybe the frustrating ambiguity of Captcha challenges and the low-key hostility of a thumbs-up emoji. It does have plenty notes about life outside of the computer, though, marking our cultural obsession with turning real life tragedies into true crime #content; zoomer teens’ uncanny savvy in navigating the back roads of social media; and our casual, collective acceptance of privacy invasion from vampiric tech-world capitalists. On a more practical, immediate level, it’s most useful as a showcase for Reid’s skills as a young actor and editors-turned-directors Will Merrick & Nick Johnson’s understanding of screenlife’s unique visual language, since those three collaborators account for almost everything we see onscreen. It’s a fun, well-staged mainstream thriller with just the right balance between social commentary, shameless sentimentality, and trashy what-the-fuck twists, when Searching only hit one of those three metrics.