/ 4 December 2023

Film explores tech’s power

Shot in an innovative style, ‘Missing’ makes us question the role of technology in our lives. (Netflix)

A few years ago, my family and I watched in awe as our five-year-old son and his four-year-old cousin effortlessly voice-commanded a smart TV, while they were searching for their favourite cartoons. 

The certainty with which youngsters use electronic devices, as if born with a remote or a phone in their hands, is always astonishing. 

This confidence in navigating technology is explored in Missing, a recent addition to Netflix. 

After her mother, Grace (Nia Long) goes missing while on holiday in Colombia with her new boyfriend Kevin (Ken Leung), 18-year-old June (Storm Reid) must use the latest technology to find her. 

With no one to help her, and stuck thousands of kilometres away in Los Angeles, the tech-savvy teenager undertakes her own online investigation to find her mother before it’s too late. 

It is a quintessential Gen Z movie that shows the stark differences between us “old folks” and our children’s generations when it comes to using technology.  

Its predecessor, Searching (2018) focused on a father looking for his missing daughter. A few years on, in this sequel, the script is flipped. We see a teenage daughter easily navigating her way online to search for her missing mother. 

The generational differences are highlighted by instances such as Grace struggling to use Siri and her insistence on June checking her voicemail. Such requests are archaic for her text-video-call generation. 

In fact, June doesn’t even have a Facebook account, instead she relies  on Instagram and other, emerging, social media platforms. 

If you thought you knew how to engage social media, search engines and all that the internet has to offer, think again. 

Pop-up notifications, drop-down menus, fast app downloads, text threads, typing and cropping offer edge-of-the-couch moments. 

The screen conversations draw the audience to sympathise with June’s anxiety and frustrations. The father in me was even tempted to help her by googling some stuff. 

As the film progresses she transitions from a typical teenager to a young adult with the emotional capacity to handle the complex dynamics of the internet. 

Audiences might be impressed by the efficiency with which she uses familiar entertainment and social apps we thought we knew. 

Screenlife genre

The film’s style is not traditional and it’s entertaining. The actors speak directly to the camera. You would be forgiven for thinking it was one long Zoom call, in a series of nail-biting events.  

What the creators Will Merrick and Nicholas D Johnson aimed for was a revolutionary cinematic language, continuing from Searching. 

In this emerging genre, known as “screenlife”, the story is told solely through computer and phone screens.  

Films such as the horror Unfriended (2015) and thriller Profile (2017), directed by Timur Bekmambetov, gave rise to this kind of filmmaking. 

Merrick and Johnson did a mock-up of the film, starring themselves and their friends, and using mobile devices, to test the viability of the shots. This made it easier for the cast when live shooting started. 

Instead of conventional cameras on set, there were customised cameras attached to laptops and phones. 

Always someone watching

As much as technology offers such the opportunity for innovation for filmmakers and ordinary people alike, there are some dangers. 

What the film is essentially exploring is how we live our lives on screens. It leads us to examine issues such as how much we share of our personal lives on social media and how often we change our passwords. 

The internet can be invaluable in emergencies, for example when a loved one is missing, but it can also be used for sinister purposes. Hacking, cyberbullying and online scams are some of the threats. 

According to iDefence, a security intelligence company, in 2019, South Africa had the third-most cybercrime victims worldwide, costing it R2.2 billion a year. 

The low investment in cyber security and immature cybercrime legislation, the report further found, makes South Africa an easy target. With the festive season on us, Missing is a call for better online safety.

The two faces of tech

The movie shows both the toxic side of the internet and the brighter side. 

The film explores how we can be empowered by the everyday apps we take for granted. June shows us how functions such as language translation, location pins and even encrypted messaging platforms can be effective in emergency situations. 

We basically carry mini computers in our pockets but some might not be aware of their power — to start a business, self-educate, find love or find a missing loved one. 

The growth of global app-based companies, such as Uber and Airbnb, was a major feature in this film. 

Javier (Joaquim de Almeida), who is an agent at an online home and errands service in Colombia, plays an invaluable role in helping June to find her mother. 

Beyond the convenience these platforms offer, the commitment and compassion of strangers thousands of kilometres can assist those in need. 

Another lesson the movie provides is how easily your digital footprints can be traced through the ecosystem that links devices such as laptops, tablets, phones and smartwatches.  

Missing is a fast-paced cinematic experience with all the right twists and turns, taking place on a computer screen.

It certainly causes viewers to  reconsider how well adults, and our children, use these devices. 

If we provide space for our children to be tech-savvy, they might just save our lives one day. Oh, and don’t forget to invest in an Apple Mac.