Three Kinds of Movie/TV Characters Who Actually Need Smartphones

It’s not easy, but I can remember life before cell phones. Back when people still memorized their friends’ house numbers, used the Yellow Pages on a regular basis, and could only dream of real-time mobile porn (SWF, don’t worry). I didn’t get my first Nokia brick until freshman year of college, yet last spring my 14-year-old cousin got a smartphone for his birthday. What the devil?

Anyway, cell phones often pose real problems for contemporary screenwriters, who can’t very well ignore the increasingly advanced mobile tech that seeps further into the mainstream every year. But those awesome Android features aren’t always conducive to an interesting plot; the entire premise of Blair Witch Project falls apart as soon as you toss a Droid X into one of those kids’ backpacks.

“Stop farting around, Mike…! You know I don’t get any bars down here.”

Literally thousands of popular movie and TV show plots address conflicts that could have easily been solved or prevented with cell phones, which is one reason they can be so damn unreliable on screeen (or conspicuously absent). And product placement’s a thing too, which I imagine limits prop choices even more.

There are plenty of modern narratives—say, post-2000—whose characters work totally fine without cell phones at all. Southern bumpkins, hippies, psychotics—take your pick. But the average consumer can afford a smartphone nowadays; they’re relatively easy to use (even for the non-super-tech-savvy), and it’s hard for working professionals to argue with all that functionality. So for shows/movies that portray realistic Americans who exist on our timeline (and thus have access to presumably similar technology), it’s sort of weird for some characters not to own smartphones—suspended belief aside.

Maybe I’m over-thinking things, and the simple absence of smartphones in a given show doesn’t necessarily detract from strong story arcs and/or character development, but I still do little double-takes when I notice certain kinds of protagonists with dumb phones in hand…

1. Professional Murderers

Offender: Dexter in…well, Dexter

Dexter is a specialized, accomplished serial killer, so we know he’s smart. He works in a crime lab with cutting-edge computers and equipment, which he uses for both work and play. So we know he’s fluent with the latest and greatest tech, and that this tech is valuable—nay, essential—to his success as a murderous blood-splatter analyst. Yet with all the research he does on his victims (an absolute necessity for Harry’s “code”), combined with his varied responsibilities as boyfriend/husband/father/role model/brother/coworker/chest-stabber, you’d think having a smartphone on hand at all times would be a no-brainer; unpredictable events are part of a killer’s day-to-day. How many situations has this guy been in where a dab of Google Maps would have come in handy? Smartphones just seem like something an intelligent serial killer would early-adopt.

I’m pretty sure Dexter’s finally caught up to us Android users by now, but at the end of season four (2009) he was definitely still rocking that slider.

“Hmm, this doesn’t bode well…”

The smartphone he should have had: Original Droid

Come on, that even looks like a smartphone a methodical murderer would use.

2. Billionaire Geniuses

Offender: Tony Stark in Iron Man (2008)

I didn’t really notice this detail until my second time around due to all the ass this movie proceeded to kick, but Tony’s phone is a product of…um, product placement for LG’s VX9400. It’s kind of a slick-looking gadget, actually, and this was back in 2008—a lot’s changed since then, and  cell phones specifically have evolved in leaps and bounds. But here’s the thing:

It’s goddamn Tony Stark.

He’s a billionaire playboy, a technological genius, and a typical afternoon for him involves Minority Report–style whatevering…

Pictured: Science (?)

…yet this is his personal phone of choice?

It’s not that I would have liked extra shots of Tony dominating Plants vs. Zombies, but even Pepper gets a Windows Mobile phone in this flick (more product placement), which seems…illogical. If you’re outlandishly rich and surrounded by cutting-edge machinery, why wouldn’t that carry over into your anytime minutes?

The smartphone he should have had: iPhone 3G

Tony’s flashy, loud, and always has access to the coolest stuff before anyone else. I’m sure the iPhone would have been right up his ally.

3. Illegal Drug Producers/Dealers

Offender: Walt and Skyler in Breaking Bad

I know Walter White got into the whole meth game as a relative novice, but doesn’t this seem like common sense? If you’re a drug dealer who’s constantly on the go, wouldn’t it be in your best interest to have a mini-computer on you at all times just for the web browser alone? I get having multiple cheapo cells as disposables, but what if he and Jesse got all the way out into the middle of nowhere for a cooking session only to find that Walt forgot a vital piece of his latest recipe back home? Couldn’t that f**k up…like, their whole week?

His wife Skyler has a flip phone too, which makes even less sense to me. As an aspiring business owner (for the car wash they need to launder money with) who knows her husband is involved in shady shit, wouldn’t it be practical to have mobile access to her bookkeeping at the very least? We know they could afford the damn things, and it’s not like upgrading their Verizon Wireless account to a data plan would send up red flags to the FBI.




…hell is up with all these flip phones?

The smartphones they should have had: Any Blackberry

Blackberrys are generally functional, reliable, and would probably still work if you threw them at someone’s face.

Wait a sec–is that an old Storm? Get the hell out of here, Saul.


  • wevs

    Okay, I see your point how Tony using that shitty phone doesn’t make much sense, but the other two accounts are completely irrelevant when it comes to plot and character development, unless Androids have an “OH SHIT THE COPS” app or something.

    Let me tell you, criminal business doesn’t involve much bookkeeping, and what information you NEED to have written down would best go on something easily disposable, because when the police is involved simply hitting “delete” won’t help you in any way other than slowing them down by half an hour.

    Furthermore, if Dexter used his phone to investigate his victims that would leave heaps of evidence, unless he wiped the hard drive clean after each use, which still won’t guarantee you can’t dig up some info on browsing etc.

  • Jeremy

    Drug dealers and other such criminals tend to use cheap, disposable prepaid phones that are easily activated without needing personal info. Until very recently, those types of phones did not include smartphones or blackberries.

  • VileThings

    We know what kind of phone Tony appears to have, but given the background we should be open to the possibility of him having modified/upgraded his phone in various ways, so it may seem like a bit of every day tech but is entirely more sophisticated.

    I agree in general though. The depiction of cellphones and lack of smartphones in series’ and movies always makes me cringe a little inside.

    However, there are exceptions. Sherlock comes to mind (in the first episode he whips out his smartphone to check the weather in the region) and The DaVinci Code (instead of using a computer as described in the book, they use a smartphone in the movie, to just google the information).

    Also, regarding flip phones: a lot of people (especially clumsy ones) like them for their ability to withstand punishment which a smartphone (or even traditional cellphones) just can’t. Drop your flip phone, even on concrete, it may get a scratch or break into its component parts, but otherwise it’s good to go. Drop a smartphone on any hard surface, chances are you’ll end up with a cracked display.

  • Frank

    That’s not a Droid X. That is the original Droid. Droid X is not a slider.

  • barretstrife

    Well with your introduction, about how stories pre smart phones would completely take away the entire plot, there is one story that was pre 2000 and then was recently rebooted for post 2000, it uses smart phones so well, and they are so much part of the story, the transition is seemless.

    Im talking of course of sherlock. Sherlock uses smartphones so well, and it is not the way I thought it was going to be, like sherlock uses smartphones and the internet as some gimmick. It is actually very important to the story

  • Straenge

    Another point I would like to make is how people use them and how they are presented to us. There is really one show that did it right for me and that was the BBC’s Sherlock. Not only was the technology up to date mostly, (in the first episode, he was using a Sony Vaio P) but they presented texts in such a great way that I wish more shows would do it.

    Instead of the audience having to read over the shoulder of the protagonist or catch a glimpse of some screen with oversized letters, it was shown as a cross between thought bubbles and subtitles and was very unique. And it wasn’t just Sherlock, almost all of the texts that dealt with the plot were presented like that.

    Sherlock himself though, as Vile mentioned, showed several trains of thought that almost gives us a glimpse behind his eyes when he checks the weather and other sources.

  • Cody

    I believe that that the events of Breaking Bad have only spanned a year or so from the beginning of the show, so that would be why Saul had the terrible Storm.

  • bobafett

    Here’s the thing about Smartphones (and non-disposable cell phone) and serial killers though.

    In real life, if a body is found, the one of the first things cops do now, is get a subpoena from cell phone towers and triangulate the users that were in the area. That gives them their first list of potential killers. Even most killers continue to carry their cell phone, even if they change their appearance, move in the dark and whatnot.

    THEN, they cross check intersection cameras versus the license plates of the vehicles registered to the phone users.

    That and motive usually can tell you who did the killing.

    The way Dexter works eliminates the body, but the cops would still have a window into WHEN the person disappeared.

  • Straenge

    @bobafett Very true, and yes that is exactly how it works in most cases. However in Dexter, I doubt that would ever become too much of a concern. Already in one instance, possibly two or more since I haven’t watched the earlier episodes in awhile, if you notice, Dexter uses a wide variety of aliases from ordering his animal tranquilizer to (I believe) renting a storage container. Here is a man who has trained his whole life to hide within a populace WHILE working alongside law enforcement. I don’t think it would be hard for him to simply use another alias for a cellphone contract. It’s even possible he has several identical phones that he uses. Would it ever come up in the show? Doubtful but it is something to think about.

  • Steve

    I was going to comment, but it feels like all I ever do here is pick on TJ these days…

  • Some Guy

    Jeremy is right, but only halfway.

    I grew up with many disreputable people, and that was a trade secret.

    I only see one of them now and he does things a little more old fashioned.

    Um…let’s just say he’s a friend I go to for certain items he alone can procure. He doesn’t even carry a cell phone on him, during…business hours because he’s afraid, that it could be bugged or that police could use triangulate his position through cell phone towers to build a case against him.

    Instead he carries an old fashioned pager (yes they still exist) that’s and has clients he has screened send him a coded phone number (it’s something really simple like the numbers are actually the ones across the touchpad from the ones they represent) He then calls them back through a random land-line to set up a meeting.

  • Joe

    This is a profoundly stupid list. Like, you brought up a part of these shows that no one cares about. It’s not even really a list. 3 people who should use smart phones but wouldn’t use them anyway during the show and have cellphones anyway. who gives a fuck. why 3 people? That doesn’t make any sense.

    Whatever. Reading this pissed me off more than anything else in the world. I kept expecting you to give me one reason for reading the article, and it just never happened. You should feel bad about yourself.