Culture Films News, Alfred Hitchcock, Article, Culture, Drama, facebook, Features, Film, Film & music, Google, Horror, James Bond, Joe Queenan, Mobile phones, The Guardian, Thriller, Twitter — July 30, 2011 13:23 — 3 Comments
The movie plots that technology killed
We are smart moviemakers and therefore at the cutting edge of making films with new technology and cameras — but what about the plot, dammit?
In the harrowing film 127 Hours, an outdoorsy type played by James Franco finds himself trapped in a mountain ravine with his arm wedged beneath a boulder. A few years from now, with Google Earth tracking everybody everywhere, the Franco character wouldn’t have much of a problem; after he’s gone missing for a day or so his friends or family would simply contact his cell phone provider, and they would instantaneously track his phone to the ravine and dispatch a search party to rescue him from his predicament. All he would need to do is sit tight, ration his water supply, and hope the rats and rattlers don’t get him first.
But because 127 Hours is set in an era where a person without mobile phone service is still pretty much left to his own devices, the hiker played by Franco finds himself in quite a pickle. Ultimately, he has to hack off his own arm to avoid starving to death. Film buffs who enjoy this sort of thing – myself included – should gather rosebuds while they may, since a day is coming when technology will be so pervasive, so intrusive, so ubiquitous, so inescapable that it will no longer be possible to make a film like 127 Hours, no longer possible to make a film where James Franco has to suffer as much as everyone who watched him co-host the Academy Awards broadcast suffered this spring. Unless, of course, the mountain climber decides to go out into the wilderness without any communications device whatsoever. Or if the film was set underwater. Or at the earth’s core. Or on another planet. Or in a parallel universe. Or in a mountain ravine completely sheathed by a coating of lead. Which is just like … OMG … impossible. Though such a fantastic plotline would be … totally … awesome.
In recent years, directors have incessantly been forced to confront the narrative-busting intrusion of new technologies, resigning themselves to the fact that plotlines that were completely plausible as recent as 10 years ago are no longer plausible now. Sometimes, directors simply choose to ignore this; the coppers would only need an emailed or even a faxed photograph in the recent thriller Unknown to prove that Liam Neeson is not the scientist he says he is, but a professional assassin. Unfortunately, that would mean that the whole premise of the film disintegrates before our very eyes. So the director simply chose to act as if his audience consisted of nitwits.
But most directors are not going to take that route, and won’t pretend their characters lack the most basic, obvious information-gathering and communications skills, because it leaves such a gaping hole in the middle of the story. This is particularly true when younger, tech-savvy audiences are the target market. Resentment of the long shadow cast by technology may explain why a number of recent high-profile movies – Inglourious Basterds, Robin Hood, Secretariat – have been set in the past, where modern technology cannot ruin things for everybody. Frankly, I think this could lead to a lot more films like Gladiator. Or a revival of the western genre. No, not Cowboys & Aliens.
To illustrate this point, in the following paragraphs we will examine instances where mobile phones and Twitter and Facebook and Google and LinkedIn and Droids and iPads and the internet in general would have altered, and in many cases destroyed, the plots of classic motion pictures down through the ages, often making it impossible to film them in the first place.
Before checking into the Bates Motel in a deserted California backwater, Janet Leigh consults Trip Advisor on her iPhone and reads: "Smelly, dirty, really creepy owner, constantly talks to a mother no one ever sees. Filthy shower, manager’s office smells of stuffed birds, no Wi-Fi. Often travelling alone on business as a cutting-edge website designer, I foolishly checked into the Bates for a night with a gift voucher my ex gave me, and let me tell you, I spent 10 sleepless hours with the chest of drawers propped up against the door, sharpening my toenail clipper, terrified that the owner was going to come in and hack me to pieces with a butcher knife. Oh, another thing: No cable." So Leigh doesn’t check into the hotel, there is no horrific shower scene, and Psycho does not become a classic.
You can’t get somebody to strangle your wife to death with a phone cord anymore because nobody under the age of 70 still has a land line. Since it would take a long time to beat somebody reasonably fit, like Grace Kelly, to death with a mobile phone, the murderer tries to do it with a portable shredder, but she bludgeons him with her iPad. Or with a totally out-of-date netbook she happens to have lying around. Or with the server she uses to store all the music from her old vinyl records. Or something.
Sultry psychopath Jessica Walter doesn’t get a chance to harass Clint Eastwood every night by calling him on the phone and purring, "Play Misty for Me," because Eastwood puts her on the no-call list, a tactic that was not possible in 1971, when the film was shot. So she calls another DJ, maybe somebody like Jon Voigt, who doesn’t know about no-call lists, and Play Misty for Me does not jump-start Eastwood’s directing career and none of us get to see those Sondra Locke movies.
The whole plotline of the film revolves around a bunch of mysterious foreigners who mistake advertising executive Cary Grant for a fictitious federal agent they wish to do in. Now retrofitted with modern technology, Grant insists that he works on Madison Avenue, and not for the state department in Washington, whereupon James Mason and the boys log on to his firm’s website, realise their error, apologise profusely, and send him on his way. The scene with the crop duster never happens. Eva Marie Saint doesn’t climb down Mount Rushmore in high heels. North by Northwest goes south.
Both in the Japanese original and in the very fine American remake, everyone who looks at a creepy videotape dies within seven days because a scary little girl comes slithering out of the television and scares them to death. VHS is now obsolete, so this would never happen today. DVDs are on their way out, too. Maybe if people downloaded the film illegally from some server in Holland, the creepy little girl would only kill the guy running the file-sharing system first, making law enforcement officials everywhere happy. But even in this scenario there might be problems because a lot of people watch illegally downloaded videos on their cell phones and even the creepiest little girl would have trouble slithering out of a screen that small. As soon as she made her appearance, menaced parties could just remove the sim card or chuck the phone into the river. They’re not expensive. Realistically, if The Ring were made today, the creepy little girl would probably upload her film onto Netflix and a million people would get an unexpected visit from her. Meanwhile, thousands of film buffs would blog that Ringu was a much better horror film, because Japanese streaming services are scarier than Netflix. Everyone knows that.
In this classic 1945 thriller, a mute housekeeper (Dorothy McGuire) is unable to call the police and tell them that she is trapped inside a spooky, isolated mansion where she is being terrorised by a murderer who knows she cannot speak and is not that handy with her fists. Email, smart phones, texting, tweeting, what have you render the entire plotline obsolete. Luckily, nobody makes these kinds of movies anymore anyway. They’re offensive to mutes.
In Takashi Miike’s excellent 2003 film – the 2008 American remake is not quite up to snuff – innocent Japanese kids get phone messages from beyond the grave warning them that they are next in line to die a horrible death. Phone messages make great cinema, due to the evocative power of the human voice. But One Missed Text? One Missed Tweet? Just not the same. Another thing: In more than one Asian horror flick, photographers developing film in their dark rooms get murdered by people who unexpectedly come to life during the developing process. Those days are gone. Thanks, digital camera.
This Roman Polanski classic revolves around Jack Nicholson’s dogged attempts to unearth the identity of the nefarious individual who owns valuable water rights in the San Fernando Valley. It takes Nicholson the entire film to figure out that John Huston is the puppet master here. Today, all this stuff about crooked developers and water rights would already be on thesmokinggun.com, so no feisty gumshoe would be needed. The film would simply never get off the ground. "Forget it, Jack," would be the final line in the film. "It’s WikiLeaks."
Harrison Ford, on the lam, Googles "One-Armed Thugs in the Greater Chicago Area" and solves all of his problems. He might even Google "One-Armed Security Experts at Illinois Pharmaceutical Firms" and achieve the same result. He could even put an ad on Craigslist, saying: "Straight white one-armed psychopath seeks same for casual sex. Watersports a plus." Who needs Tommy Lee Jones when you’ve got the net?
A few years ago, there was a whole series of movies, like Grand Canyon and Doc Hollywood, that involved innocent people whose lives were changed forever when they made a wrong turn off the freeway, all sired by The Bonfire of the Vanities, in which Tom Hanks found himself far from his Manhattan penthouse. GPS eliminates all that; nobody ever gets lost anymore. Nobody drives through bad neighbourhoods without global positioning systems these days. If you don’t have GPS, you’re an idiot. And if you’re an idiot, you deserve to die.
Matt Damon doesn’t look anything like Jude Law. He just doesn’t. Facebook, YouTube, Google, the whole shooting match would just blow Damon’s pathetic little masquerade right out of the water. You’re not that talented, Mr Ripley.
James Bond would know in advance to be on the lookout for Odd Job’s deadly chapeau because Q would have seen one of these hats for sale, dirt cheap on eBay.
Sharks, even humongous great whites, aren’t that hard to kill. That’s because sharks are dumb. Still, if at first you don’t succeed in ridding your otherwise congenial summer resort of a ravenous great white, you simply convene an impromptu gathering of resourceful, experienced shark hunters on Twitter and your problem’s solved. It’s not a case of, "We’re going to need a bigger boat." It’s, "We’re going to need a bigger flash mob here in Amityville."
The list of motion pictures whose plots get deep-sixed by modern technology goes on and on. Silence of the Lambs. Die Hard. Memento. Scream. And any movie where little kids or damsels in distress are hiding in closets or basements or under the bed won’t work anymore because at some point their smart phones will make that annoying "powering down" beeping sound and Chuckie or the Beastmaster or the little girl from The Ring or Al Pacino will know exactly where they are. If you’re smart enough to turn off your phone before you hide under the bed, you’d be smart enough not to be in that house in the first place. Or smart enough to text the FBI before you dive into the linen closet.
Here is the central paradox in all this: directors have no problem getting an audience to believe in ghosts, vampires, succubi, extraterrestrials, poltergeists, gremlins, wizards, giant worms, latter-day dinosaurs or rustic werewolves who seem to have unlimited access to steroids; all that is deemed perfectly logical and believable. But it is impossible to get anyone to believe that a character in a horror film or thriller would not be armed with the technology needed to foil the depredations of his rampaging, bloodthirsty stepfather.
This is the impasse to which technology has brought us.
One bright spot: Deliverance. I recently visited the rural south, and I couldn’t get my email or make a cell phone call for two whole days. Those poor fellas out in the wilds of Georgia would still be in a world of trouble.
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