Cinema cannot exist without mechanical or digital technology, but what is the impact of technology in film itself? Films often serve as society’s unofficial historical records with their emphasis on current events, trends, and prevailing ideologies (or the rejection thereof). The futuristic science-fiction of the 1950’s, for instance, gives us much more insight into the 1950’s themselves than any truly sensible portrait of thing to come.
Films have always had this power; to illustrate what the current dialogue is in a given society. Even present-day exploitation films like Sharknado and Snakes on a Plane will provide, years from now, valuable information about what we were thinking about during the first two decades of the new millennium, or at least an idea about the things that made us laugh.
The point is that in a technologically-driven society it is useful for a filmmaker to be conscious of how technology occurs in his/her work because it will communicate a story of its own, beyond the plot itself. Technology talks, it has an audible voice and you need to make sure that it is serving your story, not limiting or railroading it by being topical.
The Usual Suspects (1995) is an excellent example of this phenomenon. Most people remember the climactic ending of the film where the Verbal Kint leaves the police precinct as Agent Kujan and his associate are left to ponder the dubious testimony he has given. The tension is built in this scene through a series of cuts showing the FBI agents looking over the police portrait of Keyser Soze from a surviving witness while Kujan begins to suspect that something is not right. The police portrait is then faxed from the hospital to a neglected machine in the police precinct and haphazardly picked up by Kujan and his fellows as the terrifying realization sets in about Soze’s true identity. Verbal meanwhile is given ample time by this process of portraits and faxes to clear out and make his getaway. How would this scene have played out in 2014 with instant picture messaging? What about a decade from now?
Technologies are rarely timeless and very unpredictable when it comes to what we as a society decide to embrace and what we leave behind. If you want longevity for your story then make sure the focus remains on what is fundamental in the plot. By gambling the climax of your story or crucial turning points on specific technologies, you run the risk of become dated within a matter of months. Think about what is at stake for your characters, about the human drama behind all of the artifice and pour your energies into cementing that core.
While we used The Usual Suspects as a case-study, the fact is that it is a classic now, remembered fondly by all who have seen it and never derided because of it’s glaring early 90’s feel. The story is organic, human, fundamentally timeless.