Articles, Blog

Why Are There So Few Smartphones In Popular Movies?


Do not avert your eyes. That’s what’s coming at us. This is what a collective anonymous body of majority wants to see on television. I think about this quote a lot from Werner Herzog. He was talking about television, and specifically Wrestle Mania, but I think it it applies to any form of popular entertainment. The basic idea is that the most popular things, the biggest movies and TV shows and even digital media are a reflection of what we want to see, so we can read from them insights about our desires and aversions. As professor John Hunter from Bucknell pointed out recently in a TEDx talk, which I’ll link below, our tentpole movies aren’t entertaining by accident. If you’re investing in something that costs anywhere from 200 million to 300 million dollars, you aren’t taking any chances. Every second of these films and TV shows is scrutinized by editors and photographers and directors and producers and marketing people and studio executives, and it is designed to cater to our desires, to your desires to be as popular as possible to as many people as possible. Hunter argues that what our biggest movies tell us is that we’re not interested in seeing reality as it is. We prefer worlds that are animated or in a galaxy far far away. We prefer a universe populated with superheroes, or an island populated by dinosaurs or a super advanced kingdom hidden away in the jungle. Now to be fair, popular entertainment has always had an escapist element, though you could say that it’s more prominent now than in the past. But what I find more interesting about Hunter’s argument is a specific aversion that he finds in the entertainment of today. The resentment of our… smartphones. Those ever-present things that connect us to social media and capture more and more of our free time every year. If we look at our most popular movies, he says, What we don’t see, is our devices I immediately became interested in the truth of this claim, so I decided to take a closer look at the highest domestic grossing movies of this year, 2018 to see if smartphones were in them, and if they were, how exactly they were being used. Okay, first in Black Panther, America’s highest grossing movie in 2018 (and likely to stay that way), There are three brief instances of smartphone use. First, by Linda. You guys remember Linda, right? She uses her phone to intercept security footage. Then we see a couple shots of people taking pictures of T’Challa after a chase sequence Then Claw uses one to text someone later in the film, though we don’t see who or know why. In Avengers: Infinity War, there are exactly zero smartphones. None. However, Tony Stark, the most technologically advanced human on the planet, who wears a suit made of nanoparticles, does use a phone in the movie. It just looks like this. In the third highest grossing movie of 2018, The Incredibles 2, There are also zero smartphones, having to do with the fact that the world has this mid-century, modern aesthetic even though there are some high tech things… it’s confusing… Like Infinity War however, there is no shortage of older phones. In Jurrassic World: Fallen Kingdom, We get our first look at a major character using a smartphone for something other than communication, and we actually see what she’s looking at Claire is reading the news. though it’s brief and the other three instances of smartphone use in this movie are all phone calls. In Deadpool 2, we get one phone call, one mindless surf from Yukio, and this homage to “Say Anything”. In Mission:Impossible – Fallout, Ethan Hunt, the “Linda” of these movies, Repurposes a smartphone to use it as a tracker, twice. There is one FaceTime call, and one, uh, phone handoff. In Ant-Man and the Wasp, there is just one FaceTime call and one regular call. And finally in Solo, There are no smartphones at all, because this is a far-futured galaxy, that’s set in the past, that has what George Lucas thought future things would look like 40 years ago. All together that’s 16 smartphones in the top 8 grossing films of 2018. (I couldn’t get access to 9 and 10 because they’re still out in theatres, but I think this is a good sample. The uses breakdown like this: Five phone calls, two video calls, four what I’ll call single-use spy stuff one news source, two camera, two unknown, Claw and Yukio, and one “Say Anything” homage. If we’re trying to determine the truth of Professor Hunter’s claim, that the lack of smartphones is indicative of a popular resentment toward the way these devices control our lives and eat up our free time, we should compare the way that people use smartphones in these movies to the way that we do. Through that lens, we can see that at least five of these uses have little or no relationship to real life, unless you’re a spy, that is. Phone calls, similarly, are an activity that can just as easily be done on Tony Stark’s flip phone or Mr. Incredible’s cordless. That leaves only six uses: video calls are I don’t think something that most of us worry about when it comes to time wasting, same for taking photos. And as for Yukio and Claw, we don’t even see what they’re doing. That leaves this single instance of Claire checking the news. Now, for me at least, that is definitely a common time-sucking use of my smartphone. In the end, you can decide for yourself whether this evidence is conclusive. I think there is enough here to at least partially support Hunter’s claims, because though there are smartphones in some of these movies, their combined runtime comes out to only about a minute, if that, and I don’t think we really see anyone using them in the ways we might be frustrated with in our, on average, 3.3 hours of mobile usage a day. And I’m more convinced when I realize that in all of these films, there are no references or mentions at all of social media. According to the data company “Apptopia”, across the hundred most popular apps, 54% of screen time is spent in apps owned by Google or Facebook. That’s things like Youtube, Gmail, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram. None of these apps, or any generic equivalents, appear in the highest grossing movies of 2018. The time-wasting, data-mining, addiction-creating activity that has become a key, maybe even a defining feature, of our relationship with these devices is absent from our most popular entertainment. Now this doesn’t mean that our smartphones and social media don’t feature in any movies. In fact, one of the best movies of this year in my opinion, Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade”, is all about the ways that our devices and the social internet shape the way we interact. Confronting that relationship is, and will be, an important subject for film. But our most popular movies have never really been about confronting our fears and resentments, They’re about escaping them for about a couple hours at the end of a hard week, and in that spirit, I think you can say that smartphones may play a big role in our lives, bigger maybe than we want to admit, but they barely have any part in our biggest movies. Hey everybody thank you so much for watching. I hope you guys had a great Thanksgiving. This episode was brought to you by Squarespace. If you want to make a website, and you want it to be a really easy process, Squarespace has some beautiful award-winning designer templates to choose from that makes that process so simple. It’s got 24 hour customer service, no upgrades, nothing to install no patches ever, and picking your domain name is really easy too. You can start your free trial at squarespace.com and if you use the offer code “NERDWRITER” you can get 10% off your first purchase. Thanks guys, I’ll see you next time.

34 Comments

  1. iop erty Author

    As soon as I left the job where I had to use Whatsupp, I stoped using smartphone. Very much recommend
    Tho youtube still sucks up good amount of time from my weekends trought PC

    Reply
  2. orange70383 Author

    Probably because they want to drive home that they're making a call and not a character who is obsessed with their phone like so many people. Plus as time goes by these smart phones are going to remind people of when society was at it's most ignorant.

    Reply
  3. nraketh Author

    One of the things I noticed feeling after Infinity war, was how meaningless my own work life suddenly felt. Its never about life or death, or paticulary important to the fate of society. Its just being a cog in some huge unknowable machine. Compare that to how meaningful the hero's contributions are.

    We don't want to see smart phones or social media in movies, because we intrinsically realize that its all bullshit. No one wants to watch a movie about bullshit. We want to pretend things matter.

    Reply
  4. Robert Corkern Author

    At 5:52 you said no mention of Social media at all. 5 Months later endgame came out. Out the gate Tony asked peppa not to share his video on social media. But this was not his first time to say this as he said it to the solder in the Hummer in the first Iron man.

    Reply
  5. Jayne Davis Author

    I spend most of my day on YouTube but not ANY other social media. I have a Twitter account but I only use it in support of petitions I learn about from YouTube & It’s possible my LiveJournal may still exist but I only ever used numbers or code names for the people I referenced… I’m Waaaaaaay too paranoid for Facebook or Instagram

    Reply
  6. matt t Author

    I mean….maybe it’s because it’s not relevant to the movie?? We don’t include it in our movies because it doesn’t do shit for the plot

    Reply
  7. EternalAzhrei Author

    Groot has an eighties video game in Infinity War that I can't help but notice would be a smart phone if Guardians weren't a brand of 80s references. He's the quintessential teenager on a smart phone in that sense, just with a video game.

    Reply
  8. mini mini Author

    If we were to be reminded of our cellphones while watching a movie, we would get distracted by them. Just like thinking about the comment section while watching a Youtube video

    Reply
  9. Apatheism Author

    Yeah you also don’t see a lot of people taking shits or sleeping in big budget film but nobody is doing essays about that.

    It’s just boring.

    Reply
  10. Ana Carolina Author

    Well, movies are already competing with social media for our attention spam and personally every time I'm hanging out with my friends and one of them checks sth on their phone I feel compelled to do the same. I'd have to read more to make this into an argument, but I wonder if there's some relation here.

    Reply
  11. MyBlog1 Author

    I think there’s something to this, beyond disdain for smartphones. Smartphones have grown so fast, their role in our lives is suddenly enormous in a way it takes a culture decades to come to terms with. There are so many questions, not just about how phones can be used in cinema without making a film dated or, for want of a better word, cringeworthy in its presentation of the internet, but also about how writers and storytellers come to terms with this change.

    In the eleven years since the first Iron Man film, smartphones have gone from the earliest iphones and blackberries, which I’d argue at least some people thought of as a passing fad or the tools of the kinds of douchebag business men who wore Bluetooth headsets in public, to an almost mandatory device for every man, woman and child to remain a part of the mass ensemble collective of the internet and social media. And speaking of social media, most of the apps which shape not just our private lives, but indeed international news stories and even the market share of companies every single day largely didn’t exist just five to ten years ago. In 2008, your options were limited to Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and… blogger, maybe? In the space of ten years we’ve gone from RSS feeds to curated streams of information on a dozen or more social media platforms, and that’s a big change that takes time for the conservative medium of mainstream film especially to come to terms with. Films face us with things Hollywood sees as universally understandable and applicable—the fight to survive, the ache of unrequited or complicated love, the wonder of discovery, conflict and cooperation—and while social media usage, indeed chronic social media usage, is endemic among the population, it’s not old enough yet for Hollywood to feel comfortable portraying the topic accurately or in any depth. It’s still seen as something that can pull people out of a movie rather than immersing them more deeply within its story. In the examples you gave, almost all of the uses that smartphones saw were things any flip phone or landline could do; mainly making telephone calls. Why? Because everyone’s had landlines for sixty, seventy years. They’re in the collective consciousness, it’s an experience you can relate to. Sure, nowadays it’s text or FaceTime, but kids have been staying up late on school nights to talk to friends since the eighties. Hollywood is comfortable with that, because the kinds of executives every creative decision goes through grew up on movies with kids talking on phones, and people making calls, and smartphones aren’t that different. We can even use the same cinematic tools we did for “traditional” phone calls—cutting from one party to the other while they talk, showing the things they do while they’re on the phone. It still feels traditional.

    This is why social media rarely appears in cinema—not just because there’s no established visual metaphors for it on screen, at least none that age well, but also because we have no metaphors or context for it. There’s nothing to build on. Take a time traveller from the sixties and try to explain the dozen or so messaging and social media apps you’re on, and it’ll take hours. Because it can’t be reduced down to, say, a bulletin board or a classified section or a family photo album or passing notes in class or sending letters, because it’s all of these things and more. Social media represents a phase change in how we communicate, in how we talk to one another and share ideas, comparable to the printing press. It takes time for storytellers to adapt to that change.

    The other reason, of course, is the same reason google rarely appears in film and tv shows, and why characters have to use dodgy alternate search engines which totally pull you out of the moment instead: branding. Google is a brand, as is Facebook, and there’s the risk of being sued if their apps are portrayed in a negative light. Certainly a greater degree of legal bullshit around them, anyway. That’s what always gets me in crime shows, when the victim of perpetrator turns out to be an employee of ShareBook, and it’s dropped into conversation the same way an existing social media site would be, even though it’s a phrase which has literally no resonance for an audience.

    Uh yeah. Thankyou for coming to my TED talk

    Reply
  12. Brotxz Studios Author

    I think its just a reason that one of the most important thing in film school is too not waste time i just think you overthinking it but i still enjoyed the video

    Reply
  13. A Name You Can't Remember Author

    Sherlock used smartphones very smartly, and as an integral part of the show. I watched that series and never felt like: "Hey, get those frustrating things off my screen!". This analysis feels a bit like overreading or oversimplification of very context-specific comments. Also, a guy who moved a 300-ton ship over a hill in the Amazonas just for the sake of it is NOT to be trusted ;D

    Reply
  14. Ana Luiza Marçal Author

    I'm studyng screenplay in college, my teacher teach us that we don't use smartphones in movies because you can easily solve a problem with the use of our phone. Movies are made of conflit, ever scene we need to present a new conflit to make the character react and move forward. So we want to extend the conflit as much as we can until the next one.

    Reply
  15. That one dude who posted stuff Author

    I also think that the main reason is because a smart phone doesn't really add much to the story. It's an accessory to our day to day lives, but to people in movies they're always busy doing something and don't have time to constantly scroll on their phone or whatever. It's just not narratively relevant, and if they found a way to make them narratively engaged, we'd see it.

    Reply
  16. Herm Ask Author

    There are a lot of movies
    set in a time or
    in a contemporary environment *
    without phones
    to disable the protagonist from getting help.
    This is just lazy screen writing.
    * = remote area without reception, collecting all phones because (insert phony reason), empty battery because of mindless usage after catastrophic event.

    Reply
  17. Justsomeguy Author

    Lol this is pushing it. You're trying to put reason to something rather then the reason for something. Conspiracy theorist are we? I agree with what others are saying here. I think the reason we dont see people using their cell phones more in movies is because how entertaining is it to stare at an actors forhead while they are playing games on thier cell phone. We also dont see entire car rides nor see people spending a ton of time on their computer or watching tv unless it furthers the story or entertains the audience. People on cell phones, as it does in life, seperates us and pushes people out and the entire point of movies is to pull us in and make us feel as we are in the characters shoes or part of the group.

    Reply

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *