–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Blackberry Legacy as First Smartphone Explored

by | May 10, 2023

BlackBerry opens with a clip from the BBC Horizon series, a show dedicated to science and philosophy, where Arthur C. Clarke talks about the future. The year is 1964.

“The traditional role of the city as a meeting place for man will have ceased to make any sense. In fact, men will no longer commute. They will communicate,” explains Clarke about the future.

Cut to a shot of Blackberry’s lead protagonist, Mike Lazaridism riding in a car while outside his passenger window is a horse and buggy. This is followed by a rapid montage of cell phones as they appeared in the 1990’s, with phones so big they would only fit in your pocket only if you were a kangaroo.

Directed by (and co-starring) Matt Johnson – who also helmed the clever NASA satire Operation Avalanche – Johnson plays the co-founder of Research in Motion (RIM) the company that introduced the world to the BlackBerry. In movie analogies, Johnson is Steve Wozniak to Lazaridis’ Steve Jobs.

Playing Lazaridis gives Jay Baruchel his best role to date. The only downside, if any, to the movie is the wig Baruchel wears, which in all fairness depicts the premature gray locks of his character. Lazaridis is a boy who has grown up too fast. It’s the fakest hair piece since Hugh Jackman’s Gary Hart coiffure in The Front Runner

Baruchel defines his attitude through his hair, the way it’s always perfectly swept into place is also reminiscent of Christian Bale’s character in American Hustle.

Glenn Howerton also has a career-defining role as business tycoon turned philanthropist James Balsillie who becomes the CEO of RIM. Say the name out loud, it sounds silly. Balsillie sees the potential in the large handheld device and knows how to manipulate big business in a way that Lazaridis and company cannot comprehend. 

Let it be noted that Howerton shaves his head leaving the sides to complete his character’s look.

In some ways, BlackBerry is a film that celebrates hair and make-up with the same enthusiasm it embraces indie style narrative filmmaking with its constantly weaving camera movement.

Baruchel and Howerton are like a good cop/bad cop of geek culture. Baruchel weans his employee’s intellect with soft spoken electronic wisdom while Howerton screams at his underlings, barking orders for the higher efficiency of the workplace.

Howerton has a pure business attitude with zero tolerance for workplace shenanigans. “He had a toilet plunger stuck onto his computer,” Balsillie groans about his perceived intellectual perception of his new employees.

The BlackBerry was an evolution in cellphone technology in the early years of this century that’s hard to fathom in 2023. It was like a combination iPod, cell phone, and an internet communicator in one handheld device. Seems quaint now but mere years ago was a status symbol.

BlackBerry wisely knows how to make boring science fact exciting boardroom drama.

While that means engrossing dialogue about the bandwidth needed to send emails remotely it also means a work environment where gaming is considered multi-tasking and it’s an office tradition to have movie night (They Live) at the office during the afternoon.

Concepts like the quotidian worth of cellular communication are played with convincing high drama. There’s a real excitement watching BlackBerry as fortunes rise and fall. Normal people are catapulted to positions beyond their pay scale while born business types live and die on the sword of their own greed.

Balsillie hired the heads of production from then (as now) corporate giants like Google with $1-million dollar stock contracts, and then illegally backdated the price making the deal worth $13-million. 

So many scenes in this film take place in breakfast restaurants like Denny’s. Establishments instantly identified by the naugahyde seating and the constant consumption of caffeine and comfort food. The action takes place in Waterloo, Canada, a satellite community of Toronto.

Brief turns from Michael Ironside (looking nothing like he looked in Starship Troopers) and Cary Elwes (looking like an elderly version of Westley) respectively as a task master COO and a ruthless billionaire depict forces that turned a creative environment into a steamrolling industrial machine.

The BlackBerry became a short-lived billion dollar industry until it was just as quickly replaced as a must-have accessory when the iPhone was introduced in 2007.

Obviously this film about the creation of the first smartphone has a The Social Network vibe, complete with computer jargon and a background synth-inspired soundtrack that shares time with needle drops like “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”

Yet BlackBerry is decidedly not Social Network nor is it Air or Tetris or any of a type of recent films that depict the discovery, invention, and/or selling of a new innovative product. Perhaps one of the first movies of this genre was also the most boring; Flash of Genius from 2008, an entire movie about the development of the intermittent windshield wiper.

BlackBerry opens in theaters this weekend.

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