Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Anyone Getting A Signal?


"97% nationwide coverage and we find ourselves in that 3%"

Jeez, buddy, who'd have thunk it? Looks like you're on the menu tonight!

Most of these films are horrors (quite literally) with their common genre themes of isolation and loneliness highlighting the cell phone’s beepingly buzzingly annoyingly omnipresence in our everyday lives, to the point that filmmakers now feel almost forced to justify their exclusion [as working phones] and subsequently compete to come up with increasingly ridiculous excuses and stupid things to say.

As ridiculous as these clips look when bundled together, I am intrigued by what this string of edited excuses say about our technologically driven existence. We are now more than ever reliant on gadgets and gizmos to help make things easier and get us out of trouble. Cell phones morph into detailed street maps of wherever we alight and talking boxes in cars ensure we’ll never do battle with stupidly folding maps again. It’s now becoming increasingly common to read amazing stories like this: 

“Off the coast of Bali the boat had engine problems and they were stranded without any GPS or emergency radio. Rebecca sent a text message to her boyfriend in England, he called the Thames Coastguard, who called the Falmouth office, they called their counterparts in Australia, who contacted the Indonesian authorities via the embassy in Canberra and eventually an Indonesian Navy gunboat was dispatched from Lombok to look for the stricken tourists.” 
Also, following last month’s Sumatra earthquake, a victim texted friends to say he was buried under his house and could someone please come and dig him up. Thankfully they obliged. There’s also this mental story about how two surgeons carried out an operation by text and subsequently saved a young man’s life. 

All amazing, fascinating stories… unless of course you’re a seasoned horror flick writer, left wringing your hands in despair as each new cell phone story rears its heroic head in the news. Let’s face genre facts: isolation builds tension, and the reliance on ticking clock psychology, with death as a threat, flags up the phone issue much more regularly than in most other genres, and if we’ve now got people texting from lost boats in the Indian Ocean, texting from underneath rubble in earthquake-ravaged Indonesia, and texting from the dense jungles of Western Africa, what hope does any horror screenwriter have in justifying why his endangered charges simply don’t send a quick text and avert the impending mass slaughter that’s about to fill our screens for the next 40 minutes.

Of course, everyone knows there are plenty of places where we can’t get a phone signal – I can’t get one at my place of work, a place ironically most likely to be the setting for an epic slasher biopic real soon – but the problem is that these publicised rescue stories, combined with the leap-off-the-screen awkwardness of many cell phone caveats, just don’t sit well with an audience brought up to unconsciously adhere to the Aristotelian wisdom that a believable untruth is much easier to accept than an unbelievable truth. The cell phone 'problem' and subsequent excuse in contemporary horror has become a bit of an elephant in the script.

“We gotta be in some kind of sun spot or something, there’s no signal getting out!”

Forget not having a signal. The majority of times I need my cell phone for any length of time, no matter where I’ve gone, it’s more or less guaranteed I’ll have hardly any battery left, especially the further from home I am. Fact. The lack of useable cell phones in those film clips, at least the ones where the phones suddenly choke and die, is without doubt the most realistic part of any of those movies from my point of view. My phone is always dying on me when I’m out. My friends, thankfully, are not. But just because it happens in real life, it doesn’t stop it threatening to be a big stomping elephant, trumping away whenever the phone issue is raised. What to do?

The repeated issue with many of these films is the lack of creativity. We see time and again phones dying or being dropped at the very moment they’re most needed. In most cases, the filmmakers should flag the issue before the audience identifies it; place the get-out clause before the conflict and give the audience an answer before the problem appears. Hence the "No phones allowed on this trip!" as if by acknowledging it beforehand they’re saying to the audience, "You can't accuse us when we were the ones that flagged it before you even thought it!" It’s always better to know there are no bullets left in a gun than to find out when the gun goes click... click... dull ... and we’re left feeling cheated. Bring it forward, foreshadow, and use subtle plants and payoffs to at least give yourself a fighting chance.

Or maybe even remove them altogether. Is the problem with half of these cell phone issues the fact that they are even mentioned in the first place? Is the fact that the filmmakers highlight an issue that's common knowledge, yet having highlighted it they do nothing new or convincing with it? Is the pain of a terrible excuse – “Jesus, you’d think what I paid for this thing I’d get more than one bar service!” - any worse than the potential for a question left hanging over why they didn't have a phone?

I juggled with CPD (cell phone dilemma) in a thriller script that involved a situation in a jungle where medical assistance was needed. I opted to not even mention or involve cell phones and instead had characters head to a village they knew had a radio transmitter. It suited the plot, felt natural and I don't think the piece suffered because of it. Not one person who read it flagged it as an issue and my feeling is that if I had opted to write in some dramatic disclaimer as to why these guys couldn’t use their phones then I’m sure those same readers would probably have raised a knowing eyebrow at that point. 

Cell phones are now such a part of everyday life that they increasingly put pressure on writers to explain them away, especially when their working presence, or lack of, is highlighted by an endangered or terrified character’s inability to reach out to those better placed to save them. How you overcome or address that problem in your own work is a combination of creativity, calculated risk and pot luck, but my fascination with this being an issue nowadays is that for all the serial killers and cannibals out there living in teen-friendly no-signal zones, the real monster highlighted in these film clips is the technology itself. The threat of everyday technology failing us, deserting us, leaving us stranded to the ravages of nature. That’s where the real horror lies... what happens when everything stops working?

Then again, what if all movies had cell phones? Bonjour?