The number of pre-2000 films that would be cut down to mere minutes by modern technology is countless — a simple “Hey Kevin, is everything OK?” text message would’ve put an end to Home Alone after its first act — but their statuses as pre-tech classics render their storyline antiquities more charming than infuriating.
For movies made in the 21st century, however, the rise of the iPhone and its subsequent spinoffs has presented serious plot challenges. Filmmakers have the choice between capturing the iCentric moment in which we live and forgoing realism for the sake of a less complicated film.
This year, beyond the massive tentpole movies that either exist in the future or employ fictional technology far beyond our real capabilities, Hollywood has dealt with the fleeting nature of consumer electronics in two distinct ways: embracing it or ignoring it.
Some screenwriters have seemingly chosen to pretend that cell phones, laptops, and other devices just don’t exist in the present, or at the very least, have far less influence on our day-to-day lives.
Oscar-winning writers Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, for example, quite consciously utilized as little technology as possible in their directorial debut, The Way Way Back, setting the coming-of-age story in a sleepy summer beach town and stripping the teenage characters of access to the outside world. The film has been compared to classic ’80s movies, and the directors admit they kept films like Meatballs, Goonies, and Stand By Me in mind; without a careful eye, a viewer might think that it too takes place 25 years ago.
“We talked a lot about nostalgia and timelessness, just in terms of giving it that feel of connected to older generations, and then also younger generations that could watch this now,” Faxon said.
“In a weird way, we wrote a script that had no real technology in it, save for a couple of [landline] phones,” Rash told Television Without Pity.
David Rosenthal’s backwoods thriller A Single Shot, which puts Sam Rockwell in an Appalachian town that has not advanced past landline phones, similarly eschews technology while still existing in the present day.
“I wanted an anachronistic feel to this whole place,” he said. “Is it present day, or is it 20 years ago? I didn’t want to see new cars, and I definitely didn’t want any cell phones. In terms of storytelling, it’s nice to lose those sort of things because you fall into a different world.”
But other indie films this summer do push further into the past to avoid the technological difficulties. David Gordon Green’s Sundance hit Prince Avalanche features Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch) as two municipal workers spending a summer painting a road that snakes through a Texan forest. In the 1988-set film, Alvin’s future hinges on letters he is anxiously awaiting. Setting the movie in present day would have ruined — or at least made less convincing — the loneliness the characters experience, and would’ve stripped Rudd’s correspondence of its emotional relevance.
“I love the idea of Alvin — in a very pivotal, vulnerable moment — getting this handwritten letter … There is something about the fact that you’re getting very crucial news probably four days after it was considered and written,” Green said. “I like that isolation where people don’t have access to phones and email and Skype — the disconnect they have from the world around them.”
When directors do choose to integrate current technology into a movie set in the present, it can result in a jarring distraction.
“You see movies where they try to deal with the cell phones. It’s such a pain in the ass,” Hirsch said. “Even some of those scenes in [the 2006 film] The Departed where they’re texting each other, now you watch it and it seems so dated because they’re on these old-ass phones. Technology is such a slippery slope to put in movies.”
Nearly two decades ago, when Richard Linklater teamed with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy to make 1995’s Before Sunrise, they had to play dumb about the era in which the first movie was set.
“It was a huge commitment at that time. People were online in 1994, just not with Facebook and that,” Linklater said of the film, which follows strangers Celine and Jesse’s initial unexpected meeting. The characters’ post-movie miscommunication led to two more installments in the film franchise, the first of which was Before Sunset in 2004.
“They wouldn’t have misconnected [in current times]. So technology [and the idea] that everyone is interconnected does destroy a little bit of the mystery,” Linklater added. “‘When will I see them again?’ ‘Oh, I’ll just send them a text.’ You get a text back from them so you know they’re alive somewhere, but there’s less mystery space to be filled up … People forget how much time we spent lost … There was no way to connect. You’d just walk around. People would page people. You misconnected a lot more back then.”
When the third movie, 2013’s Before Midnight, was in development, Linklater knew that he couldn’t have the two characters miss messages again — social media would make that impossible — and so he decided to have Celine and Jesse get together and have kids.
Another summer sequel, Kick-Ass 2, had its own technical tweak; in the 2010 original, the homemade superheroes use MySpace to communicate with the public, which now seems laughable (not to mention disorganized), just three years later. In this summer’s follow-up, however, the vigilantes utilize Twitter and Facebook to organize their crews and send messages to villains.
In special cases, old technology does add some cultural context to a story.
In Fruitvale Station, for example, director Ryan Coogler used texting as a way to reconstruct Oscar Grant’s final hours from Dec. 31, 2008, to New Year’s Day 2009. His mundane messages with friends and family as he lurched closer to the police altercation that ended in his murder are a major storytelling method. The movie features a mix of flip phones and more modern mobiles, but because it’s set in the past, it should be easier to implicitly accept its outdated technology going forward.
Of course, none of this will matter when iPhones are just as antiquated as Kevin’s Talkboy from Home Alone 2. Rosenthal joked, “Soon, it’ll become, ‘iPhone? That’s so silly! You don’t have the brain implant?!’”