Video Phone Calls

The characters in Johnny Mnemonic make quite a few video phone calls throughout the film, enough to be grouped in their own section on interfaces.

The first thing a modern viewer will note is that only one of the phones resembles a current day handheld mobile. This looks very strange today and it’s hard to imagine why we would ever give up our beloved iPhones and Androids. I’ll just observe that accurately predicting the future is difficult (and not really the point) and move on.

More interesting is the variety of phones used. In films from the 1950s to the 1990s, everyone uses a desk phone with a handset. (For younger readers: that is the piece you picked up and held next to your ear and mouth. There’s probably one in your parents’ house.) The only changes were the gradual replacement of rotary dials by keypads, and some cordless handsets. In 21st century films everyone uses a small sleek handheld box. But in Johnny Mnemonic every phone call uses a different interface.

New Darwin

First is the phone call Johnny makes from the New Darwin hotel.

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As previously discussed, Johnny is lying in bed using a remote control to select numbers on the onscreen keypad. He is facing a large wall mounted TV/display screen, with what looks like a camera at the top. The camera is realistic but unusual: as Chapter 10 of Make It So notes, films very rarely show the cameras used in visual communication. Continue reading

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Coulson Calling

JARVIS interrupts his banter with Pepper, explaining, “Sir, the telephone. I’m afraid my protocols are being overridden.” We can hear Coulson’s voice saying, “Mr. Stark, we need to talk.” Perturbed, Tony grabs his custom phone from where it sits on a nearby table. It is made up of a glass plane within a rounded-rectangle black band. On its little screen we can see a white label reading, “Connected.” Remarkably, this label is presented in mixed case. Nearly all sci-fi interface typography is rendered in all caps, so I have some curiosity how this ended up in majuscule and miniscule. But it feels right. Perhaps that’s because it’s kind-of a consumer device?

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Anyway, beneath the label is a static photo of the caller, Agent Coulson, and below that a large circle with a central bump, and some other tiny controls.

Tony positions the phone before him, looks into the glass, and says, “You have reached the life model decoy of Tony Stark. Please leave a message.” Coulson doesn’t fall for it, saying, “This is urgent.” Tony tries to admonish him, “Then leave it urgently,” but it’s too late. Coulson himself walks out of the elevator in the room, his phone to his ear.

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Aside from the trope screens are cameras, and the bad-but-understandable translucent screen, I have another question about the interaction: What is Tony doing looking at the phone for the duration of the short conversation? Since Coulson isn’t looking at his phone, it’s just an audio connection between them. The phone should convey that status to Tony, and in fact the static image of Coulson seems to imply just that. So, why does he bother looking at it?

So try as I may, I can’t apologetics-my-way to get around this odd behavior in the scene. Perhaps Downey believed that the interface would be rendered with a video image of Coulson on the other end, and that turned out not to jive with Gregg’s holding it to his ear. I hate to leave it at “misinformed actor” but I can’t think of a diegetic explanation. Anyone have a plausible one?

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