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Has the screenlife format of the new thriller 'Missing' gone stale by now?


Right now, you could use your little screen to buy a ticket to a big screen to watch a movie where, well, lots of different screens are used to solve a mystery.


MEGAN SURI: (As Veena) You're going through Kevin's email?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You need to let the police handle this.

STORM REID: (As June) I tried. But we're running out of time.

Who are these people?

SUMMERS: The movie is "Missing," a thriller about a young woman scouring the web to search for her mother who's gone missing in Columbia. It's the latest iteration of a genre aptly called screenlife, in which plot develops purely through the screen devices that have come to dominate all of our lives.

Today, our guides to screenlife are Linda Holmes and Stephen Thompson, the hosts of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. Hey, y'all.



SUMMERS: And they are joining us for the first installment of The Take. It's our new weekly segment of cultural criticism and commentary. And, y'all, I want to get back to screenlife more broadly in a moment. But first, if you could, could you just set the stage for us with this movie, "Missing"? How does all the action play out there?

HOLMES: Well, "Missing," as you mentioned, is about a young woman, played by Storm Reid, who - her mother goes off on a vacation with her boyfriend to Columbia and sort of vanishes and goes no-contact. So this young woman who is stuck at home in front of her computer decides to use all of the tools at her disposal to figure out what happened to her mother and where her mother is.

SUMMERS: OK. And to me, this sounds like the quintessential Gen Z movie, right? A young woman, young girl, sitting at home with all of her devices, using them to open up a whole new world. Am I on the right page there?

THOMPSON: Yeah. I think it's a really effective movie. It's kind of taut and twisty. And it does a nice job, I think, of, even though you're just - it's a movie where you're just watching somebody use technology, it finds ways to work around that to keep the pacing really tight. It's really easy to imagine a movie like this getting bogged down in flashing cursors and, you know, dial-up modems grinding, you know, the way kind of other movies have struggled, I think, to capture the process of using computers.

You know, I would probably say it's probably 25% twistier (ph) more than it needs to be. But I enjoyed it as a mystery and as just, like, of - kind of a fast-paced and engrossing movie.

HOLMES: I really liked it, too. You know, I think that these types of movies, in some ways, are thrillers that are only horror movies if you're the parent of a teenager.


HOLMES: Because one of the things that they really stress is just how much information this young woman has access to and how much her mother and her mother's boyfriend are just miles behind her in what they understand. So I think it does a good job of being, like you said, that quintessential Gen Z movie partly just because, you know, it's about being really, really immersed in that life.

SUMMERS: So one of the producers of this movie, "Missing," Timur Bekmambetov, has been working in this genre for quite a while. What is his role in the origin of this genre?

HOLMES: Well, as I understand it, he coined the term screenlife for this genre of film. And he goes back to "Unfriended," which was - he was one of the producers of "Unfriended," which is a horror movie that came out in 2014, which is basically - if you think of "Unfriended" as a haunted Zoom call...

THOMPSON: Yeah (laughter).

HOLMES: ...That's approximately what it is. And that's really all it is. But then he also was one of the producers of "Searching," which came out in 2018, which is a more direct precursor to "Missing," which starred John Cho as a father whose daughter had gone missing, and he was trying desperately to catch up with his daughter's kind of digital life and figure out what happened to her. And this same producer is part of all three of those movies.

THOMPSON: It is interesting to think about those movies as part of a genre and to think of screenlife as a genre of moviemaking. 'Cause in some ways, it's very innovative. It is a new way to make movies. It's also a way to get around a lot of the budget constraints associated with filmmaking. This is - when people talk about "Unfriended," one of the first things they talk about is this is a movie that cost $1 million to make and made more than $60 million worldwide. And I don't like to get bogged down in the business side of things too much, but that is a very, very notable ratio of cost to grosses.

And it is a movie that you could have made in 2020, at the height of the pandemic, with every actor locked in his or her respective apartments. And yet at the same time, it is still engrossing and it is still shot through with dread and concern. You know, it is a very effectively made movie for a movie that could have been made via Zoom.

SUMMERS: You know, one thing that I kind of think about when I think about this genre and wonder is, for each of you, do you think that screenlife takes a moral stance about the technology that it uses? I mean, are we supposed to come away from watching these films feeling like these devices and screens are good for us or bad for us? I mean, I'm looking around right now at how many devices are right next to me, and it's a little overwhelming.

HOLMES: Yeah. I mean, I think it's a little bit of both, right? This young woman would have no way to help her mother without all of these devices and this access to a tremendous amount of information. At the same time, these films also emphasize, particularly for younger people, the ability to kind of sink into these rabbit holes of isolation and kind of uncontrolled connection - right? - both. And I think that for me, it's less the morality, and it's more - you know, in part, I think it's trying to reclaim some of what thrillers and horror films lost when technology came in. Because you now have to really explain situations of peril. Why does the person not pick up their cell phone and use it to get out of peril, right? You kind of have the, you know, I lost it; somebody stole it; it's broken; it's out of battery, or it's out of range, right? And you have to kind of deal with those things because otherwise, thrillers and horror films have lost the opportunity to use certain kinds of isolation.

So for me, this is kind of them reclaiming, what's the upside for us? What are the new problems since we now have had - you know, now we have obstacles to using the old problems, like the babysitter in the house where somebody cuts the phone cord.

THOMPSON: Yeah. It's a classic example of turning a weakness into a strength, right? You have budget limitations? This is a way of working around some budget limitations. You have narrative obstacles put up by people's increased connectivity, like Linda said, where you can't just cut a phone line? Work with that. Use the phone technology to advance the story in different ways. So I like it as a means of turning weaknesses into strength.

HOLMES: But, Stephen, for you as a parent, does this bother you, morally, when you think about it? Like, do you think about like, oh, gosh, I'm glad I don't have 14-year-olds now?

THOMPSON: (Laughter) I mean, my kids are 18 and 21. And, you know, I - obviously, I've watched "Missing" kind of through a parental lens. I watched "Unfriended" through a parental lens. But all of these things with technology - they're Rorschach tests, right? You know, the technology is there if you use it. It is overused if you overuse it. I definitely watched "Missing" as a parent and thought, well, you know, surveillance works both ways. Parents can use...


THOMPSON: ...That technology to surveil their kids just as easily as it can work the other way around. So, you know, all these things - I think movies can run the risk of overly moralizing around the use of technology. But this technology, like anything else, it's a tool.

SUMMERS: That's NPR's Stephen Thompson and Linda Holmes. Thanks to you both.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

HOLMES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)
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