Internet culture has pervaded scriptwriting in various ways. It has provided useful ways of releasing information to the audience. Meme culture, ways of writing texts, or communication through a certain type of media reveals a subtext previously unknown, but in every conversation that follows, you consider these subtexts to figure out how the situation will unfold.
Take the BBC masterpiece, Sherlock, for example. Sherlock is quite often in contact with his arch-nemesis Jim Moriarty, and we know that through the message bubbles which pop up on the screen for us to see whilst we simultaneously observe Sherlock’s expressions. Black Mirror portrays the internet the best - take an episode like Nosedive; a brutal, horrifying account of what happens if we introduce a social credit rating for humans or Shut Up And Dance; an episode that’ll instantly make you cover your webcam with some tape.
These, however, are still conventional ways of storytelling. Even though the aforementioned devices make use of internet culture, they still fall short of being able to harness the full power of what someone experiences when online. The need to harness and depict that is what led to the computer screen thriller being born - a stylish new method of movie-making. Most or all of the film takes place on some kind of a screen be it the computer, phone or television. This subgenre of films made its biggest splash with the release of Searching, a movie with John Cho playing the lead, about a father searching for his missing daughter.
However, the roots of this subgenre go back way before 2018. The first documented screen-only movie was The Collingswood Story, which is about an online long-distance relationship gone wrong. It takes place through webcams. The real wave of this subgenre started about a decade later with the movie Unfriended, which revolved around cyberbullying among high-school students. It made $64 million in revenue against a budget of $1 million. A Russian director, Timur Bekmambetov co-produced it, thereby beginning his dedication to this subgenre that he calls Screen Life. He produced a sequel to the movie, as well as Searching, and directed one of his own called Profile. There were other short films in and around 2013-2015, which seemingly inspired the TV show Modern Family to go the same route with one of their episodes. It is hailed by many as one of the best episodes of the show.
The real question, however, is this: is there something much deeper to the Screen Life or is it just a gimmick to make things flashy? Much of the information can be revealed without using screens throughout. Sherlock was able to demonstrate it well. The TV show American Vandal was themed around internet culture, and used it to its advantage. Even 13 Reasons Why could be credited for the same; one can see that this trend is directed towards millennials, because their lives revolve around screens the most. Modern film-making has allowed the blending of actions on the web and reactions to it for us to simultaneously consume.
These films have much smaller budgets. The return on investment can be immense. Searching made $75 million against a budget of $1 million, and Unfriended made 64 times its budget. But is there more to this subgenre than meets the eye?
At first glance, one can see that this style expresses a lot by saying little. Social media tells us about habits, likes and desires not just of the user but also of people engaging with said user. It is the rapidity with which the story gets out that makes screen thrillers this gripping. When people are online and texting each other, the messages, the time taken to reply, or the choice to not reply at all, everything leads to some assumptions in both the audience and the characters. This technique plays upon our conditioning to believe that tiny things are indicators of something large.
If you want to hide porn from your parents, you naturally put it in some folder in an extreme corner of the depths of your desktop. And when your parents find out they are shocked and upset. The way those reactions get captured in a screen thriller is unparalleled. The screen need not resort to edits or cut-aways to show the reaction; it is right there. The actor reacts at the same time as the audience does, they are as much the spectator as we are. The lesser reliance on cut-aways directly takes the audience on the protagonist’s journey. While not exclusive to the genre, Screen Life films surely help bring out the often shocking difference that exists between our lives and our personas, in real life and online.
These films come attached with a sense of claustrophobia, to say the least. The screen is crowded with pop-ups, the user keeps switching between tabs and windows. This adds to not only the pace of the film but also the paranoia of the viewer. Every step of the way, there lurks a fear, it is like you are always waiting for the next development. You are excited for what comes next, no matter how deeply personal or confidential it might be for the victim. Not that that is wrong; it is a story, after all. But it does explain something about the human desire to voyeur over others’ lives; both the good and the bad. As David Fincher, the director of The Social Network says, “People are perverts.” They want to know the truth, but the kicker is that it will be ugly. Nevertheless, they will love it.
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