Techno-thrillers are so passé

08 Jan 2008

If you've ever wondered why recent Hollywood movies have been set in the past rather than the present - No Country For Old Men and American Gangster, for example - The Guardian's Joe Queenan has figured it out. It's so they can make movies without having to rely on mobile phones and Google to make everything easy for the characters.

Mr Queenan contends that whiz-bang ultra-modern telecoms technology is ruining movies, ostensibly because there's no suspense involved in tracking down a killer or gangster when you can just Google him or track his cell phone - and that Hollywood is going retro because it knows we're all sick of seeing human ingenuity replaced by clever PDAs or sonic screwdrivers or something.

Naturally, as both a fan of technology and someone who lives and breathes telecoms, I find Luddite diatribes quaint little beasts. Still, I think this is the first time I've ever heard someone actually complain that technology makes life easier - at least for the people onscreen.

To be fair, Hollywood does have a patchy track record when it comes to accurately representing the capabilities of things like the Internet and various wireless gadgets (and we're excluding the sci-fi/James Bond genres here), and they can be used as a crutch to get the hero (or the villain) out of a jam or move the story forward. I also like the idea that Janet Leigh's character in the classic thriller Psycho would still be alive in Canada somewhere if only she'd been able to look up the Bates Motel on Travelocity or had a GPS monitor in her car.

That said, Mr Queenan seems to assume that technology access and usage is ubiquitous and uniform. How many people would bother with Travelocity when we're embezzling $40,000 at a moment's notice (as Ms Leigh does in Psycho)‾ And just how would you be able to locate a wanted criminal by reading a bunch of blogs (unless he's stupid or arrogant enough to post his exploits on LiveJournal)‾ And while it's certainly possible to locate wanted criminals by tracking a cell phone, it's not necessarily easy - especially if the criminal is smart enough to use a prepaid SIM or some other counter-surveillance trick (real or imagined) to thwart the fuzz.

In other words, technology and gadgets don't sap suspense from a film - unimaginative writing does. Everyone's entitled to their opinion, of course, but I suspect that when Mr Queenan says that "the public is sick of techno-thrillers" and "[p]eople are tired of seeing movies where the action is dominated by typists, archivists, hobbyists, librarians," by "the public" and "people", he means "I".

Besides, everyone knows that as long as there's such a thing as product placement, we'll still be seeing plenty of films sporting technology from Nokia, Apple, Dell, Samsung, Cisco Systems and other companies who make stuff characters can use in a scene. If Hollywood seems to be making more period pieces, it's more likely more to do with the old storytelling trick of mining the past for ideas than disdain for technology.

But then I've always wanted one of these, so I would say that, wouldn't I‾

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