Missing is an upcoming thriller about a teenage girl, June (Storm Reid) whose mom, Grace (Nia Long) disappears while on vacation with her boyfriend, Kevin (Ken Leung). After throwing a wild party while her mom is away, June is freaked out when she goes to the airport to pick her up, and no one shows.
As June investigates her mother's disappearance, we see everything through the various devices she's using in her search. Shots of FaceTime calls, webcam footage, news broadcasts, text messages, and emails, replace traditional filmmaking. Missing has many of the hallmarks of a ‘COVID movie’, i.e. a movie with a smaller scope designed to work around pandemic-caused limitations. It largely seems to be set in one location, like Barbarian, Bodies Bodies Bodies, X, Pearl, and Glass Onion before it. But, this is the same technique that director Aneesh Chaganty used on Searching, the film to which Missing is a standalone sequel. The appeal of a low-budget film with innovative technique has always existed, COVID or no.
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In the trailer, Missing feels less like any of the movies I mentioned above and more like any of the spate of recent video games that have replaced fantastical virtual worlds with familiar — though legally distinct — user interfaces designed to mimic the consumer technology that players are intimately familiar with through day-to-day use.
Her Story, released in 2015, is the first game I played that was built around this concept. Though games had featured diegetic user interfaces before — think Snake's Codec in Metal Gear Solid or the Pip-Boy in Fallout 3 — Her Story took place entirely within a computer screen. In that game, the unseen protagonist is trolling through a database of police interrogation footage, attempting to draw some conclusions about what happened to the woman being interviewed, Hannah Smith. Director Sam Barlow has used a similar technique in his subsequent projects, Telling Lies and Immortality, too. In Telling Lies, there was even a solitaire app on the player character's desktop if you needed a break from the mystery.
No Code is another studio whose games have, consistently, focused on the interface as a means of storytelling. Its 2017 game, Stories Untold, included four stories, each told through the player’s interaction with technology. Its 2019 follow-up Observation put players in charge of a HAL 9000-like AI on a space station where things go wrong. And, the trailer for the developer's upcoming horror game, Silent Hill: Town Fall, continues this focus, playing out as one minute-long dolly shot toward a CRTV Pocket Television as disturbing images flash by and a cryptic voice over gives vague hints about the game's story. Simulacra, Hypnospace Outlaw, and Who Pressed Mute on Uncle Marcus? are other recent games that have taken place entirely within computer screens.
So, what does the trend mean? What does it suggest? I don't know exactly. But, when I look at the trailer for Missing, I can't help feeling that it's essentially an evolution of what The Blair Witch Project did nearly 24 years ago. That movie used video tape instead of film to give the footage a vérité quality. Because it eschewed the polished lighting and cameras and stars that make Hollywood movies feel like ‘real’ movies, and because it looks like the home videos you've seen yourself and your family members in, it feels closer to reality.
Paranormal Activity updated that by using security footage, and Searching and Missing have updated it further for a generation that has grown up with constant access to a camera. For younger Millennials and, especially, Gen Z, seeing themselves on video is as natural as breathing. I'm 28 and grew up with digital camcorders. When I was in elementary school, YouTube launched. When I was in middle school, the iPhone came out. In high school, Snapchat. In college, Vine.
Video has always been a part of my life, but the rise of TikTok has further inundated the generation below in the moving image as a means of communication and as a source of news. Video games like Immortality and movies like Missing feel like they're speaking to that ubiquity. Our lives are almost inseparable from tech, and tech, increasingly, means video. We can't know what that will mean for the future of how humanity processes information. But, these games and movies provide more concrete mysteries to solve.