AS revisiting You’ve Got Mail reveals there’s nothing that ages a film more than outdated technology, says Jane Bradley
When Meg Ryan receives her first message from Tom Hanks in You’ve Got Mail, I can feel her excitement in a way that nobody under the age of 30 – or probably over the age of 40 – will ever be able to understand.
For what Meg was doing was discovering the power of a technology of which neither she, nor anybody else at that time, understood the impact it would soon have on the world.
While email was still in its infancy as a regular form of communication, this took things a step further. Instant messaging. An immediate dopamine hit. Instant gratification for the single and shy.
In those days, it felt oh-so-exciting and just a little bit wrong. At the time, Ryan and Hanks’s characters were indulging in something which seemed unthinkable to most of us, teetering on the cusp of the virtual world. While they skated on just the loveable side of stalkerish, it all seemed too good to be true. Unreal. Witchcraft. Just too easy.
I was 18 when the film came out. It was three years after we first got email at home – my dad was an early adopter – and probably two years before I got my first MSN messenger login. I can still remember our first email address, the catchy “firstname.lastname@example.org”.
Forays into chat rooms, where you could actually speak to people sitting in front of their computers all over the world felt exciting and pioneering, rather than seedy.
Unused to online interaction, the ability to craft witty one liners on screen and send them at a touch of a button was a hugely liberating idea which was like catnip to a teenager of the 1990s.
It was modern. It tapped in to the excitement which was sweeping the western world - but which has now become de rigeur.
Sending a message is no longer exciting, it is a dull occurrence of daily life. Like brushing your teeth or picking fluff out of your belly button.
Yet for all of its pioneering spirit, for the simple reason that its entire premise relies on modern technology, the film, 17 years on, does not, sadly, look so modern any more.
The whole thing is stuck in an AOL-themed time warp - the company which pioneered the dial up internet connection on the other side of the Atlantic. AOL, incidentally, now has little to do with internet connectivity, remaining a media company which invests in websites such as the Huffington Post. Indeed, today’s young viewers of You’ve Got Mail would miss the reference: the branding, the logo; the wholeambience of the internet revolution.
Yet while You’ve Got Mail captured a zeitgeist perfectly, in doing so it has dated far faster than Ryan-Hanks classic ‘When Harry Met Sally’, which was filmed almost a decade earlier.
When Aussie soap Neighbours first began to admit the existence of mobile phones (at the fairly late date of circa 2010), the producers seemed a little unsure of how to do it.
And the way they chose was somewhat unorthodox - a giant speech bubble would appear, with the contents of the text message sent or received by the on-screen character. Thankfully, that didn’t last very long.
Now, they have tried to bring the idea of mobile phones into their plot lines, with a well documented case of cyber bullying at Erinsborough High a couple of years ago. Not that I watch it, you understand. The same goes for literature. I recently read a light and fluffy novel which told a tale of a complicated love triangle. The story was a tale of missed opportunities, chance meetings and foiled plans.
Yet, what was glaringly obvious was that in real (modern) life, none of this would have happened. The protagonist would have checked in on Facebook at his local pub one night and his love interest would have known exactly where to find him. But save a couple of glancing references to text messaging, technology was largely ignored.
In short, contemporary entertainment does not know what to do about technology. The problem, of course, is that the plot of any good drama, whether in a written word genre or on screen, relies on good old genuine mix ups.
Secondly, there is the problem of the miniscule shelf life of any form of technology. Few directors dare to embrace modern day mobile phones, social media or home gadgets as part of their portrayal of a character’s life for fear of looking out of date before the film hits the silver screen.
Some, like The Social Network, which charts the launch of Facebook, cannot avoid it. Others tackle the problems associated with social media head on – cyber bullying, for example. Social media can provide interesting plot material, but using it too heavily feels like cliche.
A novel about a woman who finds love on Tinder, for example, would, unless it was very subtly done, fall straight to the bottom of any self respecting agent’s slush pile.
Tinder? It could be dead in a year. Old news. A ticking time bomb of outdated writing.
The same goes for any other social media - and no-one can quite predict when or where the culture axe will fall. Indeed, the demise of Facebook was predicted not so long ago, only for it to have a resurgence as a place for people to post not just personal updates, but share online content ad nauseum.
Twitter, technology experts tell me, is the one currently at risk. Use that in a modern film and you’ll be branded a dinosaur quicker than you can say 2017.
Yet what is missing is the ability to integrate technology in any form seamlessly into modern entertainment as part of daily life. Misunderstandings, foiled chances, confusions and missed meetings. Without them, stories would be very boring.
And thinking about it, if that is the case in the made-up world, surely it also goes for real life.