Cinema’s uneasy relationship with mobile phones

A piece of technology that is frequently the bane of many scriptwriters, Ryan looks at cinema’s sometimes awkward usage of the mobile phone…

Buried is remarkable. Horrifying in concept, and brilliant in execution. With little more than an actor, a wooden box and a few small props, director Rodrigo Cortés has created a film more terrifying than an entire shelf full of torture porn horror, and possibly one of most thrilling movies I’ve seen so far this year.

Ryan Reynolds is excellent as the luckless truck driver who wakes up in a wooden box six feet under, and it’s his haunted face, dimly lit and filthy, that carries the entire film.

What’s notable about Buried is its absolute commitment to its premise. Where the not entirely dissimilar Devil, which we reviewed the week before last, diluted its ‘evil in a lift’ scenario with a ‘detective on the case’ subplot, Cortés’ movie never, ever cuts away from the dreadful scenes inside Reynolds’ pine prison.

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We’re with the character, sharing every breath, for a stifling, claustrophobic 90 minutes. There are no flashbacks, no cut-aways to detectives somewhere in the outside world. Every event (and there are a surprising number of these, despite the limited scope Buried‘s premise might suggest), is seen from Reynold’s viewpoint, and it’s all the more terrifying for it.

Buried is also notable for its use of an everyday object that most screenwriters apparently loathe: the mobile phone. The majority of horror and thriller scripts spend a couple of minutes explaining why their hapless protagonists can’t use one. Generally, they’re either mislaid, broken or unable to find a signal.

Screenwriters’ apparent hatred of mobile phones is, of course, understandable, since the instant connection with the outside world they provide creates obvious problems. Rear Window would have been a considerably different film if the wheelchair-bound Jimmy Stewart could simply have called Grace Kelly on her Blackberry and told her to get the hell out of Raymond Burr’s flat. In fact, most pre-90s horror and thriller movies would have been considerably shorter had their protagonists owned mobile phones.

Scriptwriters have, therefore, had to find creative new ways of rendering mobile phones useless, or finding ways of integrating them into the plot to heighten tension rather than destroy it.

In David Fincher’s Panic Room, for example, Jodie Foster’s inability to keep her mobile phone in her pocket results in an especially tense scene, the most exciting in the entire film, in fact, shot entirely in slow motion.

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Desperate to inform the police that her home has been invaded by a group of criminals, Foster sneaks out of the safety of her panic room and snatches the device from under her bed, knocking over a lamp in the process. Having scrambled back to her iron-clad cell, narrowly avoiding the grasp of Forest Whitaker’s home invaders, she discovers that – surprise – the thick walls of the panic room prevent her from finding a signal.

Other scriptwriters have tackled the invention of the mobile head on, and created films whose plots hinge entirely on cell phone technology. The results, however, have often been mixed.

2004’s kidnap thriller Cellular (which featured Jason Statham in a rare turn as a villain) wasn’t bad, while Takeshi Miike’s surprisingly restrained horror, One Missed Call, in which a group of people are subjected to a series of ghostly visitations after a phone call, was quite good, if somewhat similar in concept to 1998’s Ring. The US remake of One Missed Call, by contrast, was awful.

One of the most effective movies to feature such technology is the little seen but brilliantly made Cell Phone, a Chinese comedy drama that examines the impact of mobile phones on relationships. Low key and naturalistically shot, it relates the misfortunes of a chat show host whose extramarital affairs come to light when he leaves his phone at home.

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It’s Buried, however, that uses the mobile phone to best effect. Had Buried been written and shot before the 90s, the film would have been little more than a man scratching at a wood panel with his fingernails, or fruitlessly screaming into the darkness.

Instead, Reynolds’ character is a genuine protagonist instead of a helpless hostage, and his mobile phone comes into its own as a beacon of hope in a film that would otherwise be utterly black with despair.