Film: Dial M for the movies
After this Sunday, scriptwriters' lives will never be the same again. You can blame satellite phone technology
Thursday 29 October 1998
On 1 November, the 66 satellites of the global Iridium phone system flare into life at a cost of $5bn (pounds 3bn). This new technology will mean you can phone anyone from anywhere in the world. Whether you are astride an oil rig in Sumatra, stranded in the Arctic or caressing orchids in the depths of an Andean jungle, your mother/bank/double-glazing salesman will be able to dial your digits.
Isolation will no longer exist as an absolute concept. As a result, films such as Harrison Ford's desert island tale, Seven Days, Seven Nights, will be obsolete. The joke about Anne Heche's irritating NYC yuppie character trying to use her cellphone to dial for help when Ford crashes their plane on an unmapped island will, actually, not be a joke any more. Now she can dial for help, and book that Aveda facial on 5th Avenue. Just as the boys in Lord of the Flies could use theirs to phone out for pizza after killing Piggy.
In fact, we've been here before, several times. The advent of the automated telephone exchange removed that wonderful source of Thirties and Forties plot device, the eavesdropping telephonist, from the scriptwriter's arsenal. Hollywood adapted (and discovered bugging). A few decades later, the answerphone proved a godsend to comedy writers: the retrieval of an embarrassing phone message from someone's flat remains staple comedic fare even now.
The mobile phone, though initially the size of a small nuclear device, threatened to destabilise tried and tested plotlines - in horror movies, especially. How would the slasher movie recover from not being able to cut people off from the outside world, with victims cowering in their houses as zombies chewed the phone lines without?
Indeed, a case could be made that the mobile phone helped kill off the teen horror movie until quite recently. But the truth is that even mobile phones (and that includes the new Iridium system) can be nobbled. One of this week's releases, the excellent and thought-provoking Funny Games deals with the mobile phone problem very neatly: without giving too much away, the two sociopaths visit their victims before the onslaught and "accidentally" knock the victim's mobile into a kitchen sink full of water. Much of the frantic activity of the ensuing horror revolves around the victims trying to dry out the mobile phone with a hairdrier. But it's no good: they're prisoners in their expensive, barricaded holiday house.
In other words, far from diminishing plot potential, new phone technology simply adds a new set of possibilities (as e-mail is now doing in films such as Wenders's The End of Violence, or the lacklustre Sandra Bullock vehicle, The Net).
And the thriller has benefited more than any other genre. Femmes fatales, such as Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction, use the mobile phone's sleek form as a fashion accessory, almost like some kind of sex toy (especially that cute little Startac model, or the lissom new chrome Nokia).
The X-Files, too, would be impossible without FBI-issue mobiles: most of Mulder and Scully's breathy, noirish relationship is conducted over cellulars, and it's the key to the creation of moody scenarios and fragile links between people.Terrorists, cranks and psychos revel in its untraceable qualities. But are they untraceable? Recent movies such as Eraser (1997) with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Robert Altman's The Gingerbread Man (1998) involve major mobile tracing efforts, a technically dubious feat with current mobile technology, which will, however, be possible with satellite phones. Remember that it was the satellite phone (which till now has required a dish to operate) of the Islamic fundamentalist that the Cruise missiles locked on to earlier this year, in Clinton's Afghanistan attack. Dial M for Mandatory Air Strike - on a screen near you, soon.
Actually, Dial M for Murder just got remade as A Perfect Murder, and it's a wonderful reprise for that arch-priest of the bourgeois "cellular" crime, Michael Douglas. Ever since Wall Street (where in one famous beach scene, he appears to be pressing a refrigerator to the side of his head) his saggy face has been the very image of on-the-hoof executive sleaze, as he flicks the pocket mobile open. When he uses two mobiles simultaneously to create an ingenious alibi in A Perfect Murder, he later discards one out of the car window into the street - like a murderer disposing of his murder weapon. Which is, in any real sense, what it is. You can be certain Hitchcock would have pounced on the mobile phone with ghoulish pleasure: he above all would have understood its essential, manipulative nature.
The first phone numbers that were allocated in most countries were generated from the first few letters of the owner's name, and in a way we have returned full circle. Whether it's the "phone number for life" technologies, or the self broadcasting pinpointing ability of the Iridium phone, we are now suddenly tagged by our phones rather than concealed by them. Once again, it is the thriller that will benefit, and the action movie especially, since now remote terrains will be encompassed by a communications network. The role of landscape in such movies will become necessarily more complex. Some will eschew the mobile altogether: one can't imagine the rather tweedy Hannibal Lecter using anything else but a payphone to make calls to Clarice (as he does at the end of Silence of the Lambs). Will James Bond get a satellite phone? You would have thought so. And yet, it would destroy his whole image as a loner and a maverick, what with having Judi Dench on the blower all the time as he's skiing past some Albanian soldiers trying to steal the world's weather.
One genre will lose out - for a bizarre reason. SETI (search for extra- terrestrial intelligence) scientists have already complained that the radiation net of the satellites will block out space radiation - from the signatures of dying stars to the communication efforts of extra-terrestrials. So no more Jodie Foster in Contact (1997), hands cupped over earphones, delicately listening to the sound of ET in a field of satellite dishes - indeed, no more "ET phone home" either. It's going to take a lot more than kitchen foil and Drew Barrymore's Cabbage Patch doll to summon the mother ship now.
And no more Species type scenarios, where scientists receive a make-your- own alien blueprint zapped in from outer space. In one trip of the switch, we have abolished isolation on the planet: but now we are more isolated than ever. You can be sure Hollywood will milk that for everything it can get.
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