We don’t watch blockbuster films for realistic stories. We watch to be entertained, to avoid the daily humdrum of our lives, to escape for two hours. Acknowledging that, it’s not surprising that smartphones are so rarely seen on screen in mega-popular movies. So many of us feel chained to our phones, and in turn, we spend hours gazing down into little glass screens that have come to control us. It feels good to know the movie theater is a momentary break from the constant stimulation we get from our phones.
Video essayist Evan Puschak (aka The Nerdwriter) was fascinated by this hypothesis, which was raised by professor John Hunter in a 2017 TEDTalk, and found every instance of a smartphone in some of the highest-grossing movies (domestic) of 2018. Across these films sampled — Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Incredibles 2, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Deadpool 2, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Ant-Man, and the Wasp, and Solo: A Star Wars Story — there were only 16 smartphone appearances, totaling less than one minute of screentime combined. See how each of these moments played out in the Nerdwriter video below.
In 2019, you’d be lucky to go a minute without seeing a smartphone in real life. But when we go to the movies, we sit quietly in a darkened room for two hours and just observe. If smartphones were as prevalent on screen as they are in the real world, this escapist aspect of cinema would be at least partially lost. Social commentary is important in art but sometimes going to the movies is just about simple entertainment.
Take, as an example of the former, Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade. This was one of my favorite films of 2018 but one that will probably take me a few years to revisit. It follows Kayla, a 13-year-old girl dealing with the anxieties that come with being in middle school. Throughout the movie, the pressure to uphold the façade of social media is an important theme so naturally, there is a lot of screen time dedicated to Kayla’s phone.
Unlike the fantastical superhero movies that gross more than a billion dollars, Eighth Grade is relatable, if not to a fault. It is an incredibly moving film that, for me, was not an easy watch. The uneasiness Kayla feels around her peers juxtaposed with her learned comfort in staring at her phone alone in her dark bedroom is painful to watch. To see a young girl in the same place I was just a few years ago, feeling so hopeless and lost and like the world is out to get her, I wanted to dive in through the screen and give her a hug. That poignancy is hard to achieve in the mega-budget genre films that see the bottom line as the most important aspect of moviemaking.
As Puschak supposes, those films aren’t designed to reach high levels of emotional depth. Rather, they are deliberately crafted to keep you entertained and coming back for each umpteenth sequel. Franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars are incredibly successful for this reason. By simply ignoring the concept of a smartphone, there is subconscious anxiety lifted off the audience’s shoulders. Tony Stark and T’Challa have access to the most advanced technology in the world and yet, Tony still uses a flip phone. Because of the limited use of the simple phones they do have, and the intense action in almost every scene, it doesn’t even register as out of the ordinary.
Smartphones have such a specific place in our daily lives, it’s not shocking that the concept can be manipulated in movies to such drastic results. Whether attention is brought to them to emphasize their power over us, especially in youth, or intentionally ignored in order to avoid commentary, the use of smartphones in popular cinema has proven to be a very deliberate practice.