‘Planes, Trains,’ and Technology

The holiday movie-watching season is near, and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is one of the classics. Steve Martin and John Candy, as I am sure you remember, are forced by mishaps into two days of bad travel together, on their way to Thanksgiving Day. The movie was released in 1987 and holds up well, except for one aspect: technology—or I should say its absence.

It must seem odd to our children that the movie presents certain problems as insuperable, but then most Americans under 30 have never known a time like the one portrayed. It is odd even for me to think that within a handful of years after the movie was released, technology changed so radically that all the capabilities the characters lack, our digital horn of plenty provides.

Take Kevin Bacon, for instance. At the start of the movie, director John Hughes has Steve Martin and Kevin Bacon, in a nonspeaking bit-role, race each other for a cab in gridlocked NYC traffic. Kevin Bacon wins the footrace, which starts Steve Martin on the road to misery.

(The scene appears to be a playful nod to Hughes’ next, 1988, film, She’s Having a Baby, in which Kevin Bacon has a job similar to Steve Martin’s in Planes. Later in Planes, Steve Martin’s wife is watching TV, on which She’s Having can be heard.)

Cells, GPS, and mobile payment systems made services like Uber possible, so now of course Martin would know if rideshares were available and if drivers were tied up in traffic too. Google Maps would let Martin decide to walk to the subway and catch a train out to the airport instead. In fact, he would know his flight was canceled before he went and could stay in the city, at some place with nice crowd-sourced reviews, instead of at places like The Braidwood Inn. He would know the risk of further bad weather in Chicago, his destination. He could even snap a photo of Bacon’s triumphant smirk and use facial recognition to ID him as that kid from Footloose. Then he could post trollish comments on social media.

The main thing about the movie that still surprises is that once we walked the earth unreachable, unless we pulled in at communication oases such as pay phones. Steve Martin cannot reach his wife for most of the film—admittedly a conceit that the plot has to work hard to maintain—which causes weird friction (“What’s going on, Neil?”). And it all starts there on the city street.

“Hi, hon,” Steve Martin never gets to say to his wife in the seconds after the incident. “Kevin Bacon got the only cab; not sure I’ll make it on time.” He does not get to text it. He does not get to speak into voice recognition that will type the text for his gloveless fingers. Savagery.

It is so weird, all the ways of that world: people in the departure lounge are all shown reading—books and newspapers. Steve Martin is told on the plane that he was downgraded from first class to coach a month earlier—his first time hearing of it, since he got no alert. The two men have no way to widely search for hotels when stranded, make online reservations, or even know if there is more than one bed in the room. The Braidwood has one of those slidey-things for credit cards, which makes a switch of their cards possible, which again serves plot. The lock on the motel door is not electronic, so a punk thief sticks his switchblade in it and gains entry.

The men are carrying a total of $923 (a little more than two grand today) in cash instead of debit cards; when stolen it is lost forever. Candy asks for Martin’s home address to return some money, and Martin can say no and get away with it, because he has no Internet presence. Martin misses his kid’s Thanksgiving pageant performance; there is no smartphone video. “Those are the precious moments, too,” Candy says. “Those don’t come back again.” (Also, the parent-audience is not a sea of lighted screens.)

Martin throws away his car-rental agreement in a rage, and there is no email or PDF copy. “You’re fucked,” the sweet lady at the rental counter says.

There is no GPS to tell them they are going the wrong way up a highway—only a couple shouting from another car, trying to save their silly lives. And when their remaining credit cards are burned in a car fire, there is no VISA on a phone, or Paypal, or even Venmo to come to their aid. (Martin trades an expensive watch for a crappy motel room.)

The movie, which has lasted for the acting and the drama of the relationship, is also a last glimpse of pre-digital life. Seven years later I would become one of Amazon’s first customers—they sold only books then—and they were so grateful they sent me a hat as thanks. I lost the hat, which might have served as an artifact of its time, so I will watch Planes with my sons instead, talking through the whole thing, telling them this is how it used to be.

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