A Brief Visual History of On-Screen Text Messages in Movies and TV

In college, one of my professors made an casual observation that struck an eerie chord, and has stayed close to mind since. “In a way, we’ve all become cyborgs,” she said, matter-of-factly. “How often is your phone not within a couple inches of your hand?” Of course, our technological dependence isn’t news anymore. And with the onslaught of wearable tech and Google Glass finally being made available to purchase (for a cool $1,500), we’re becoming more cyborg-ish than ever.

Despite remarkable advances in tech, film and TV generally haven’t strayed too far from the Ghost Writer approach to depicting technology on-screen — i.e., zooming in on the device, or voyeuristically peeking at a character’s phone over their shoulder. Some shows, however, like House of Cards and Sherlock, expertly integrate text messages into their stories by sticking them directly onto the screen in ways that complement and further the storyline naturally.

By 2014, it’s become second nature for us to live our lives half on-screen, half off. So it’s almost more shocking that shows and movies still force brief, unrealistic meetings between characters that last only a couple minutes, when in reality we know the interaction would be carried out over text. This on-screen display method also provides a unique opportunity for actors to tweak facial expressions and reactions to a conversation that unfolds slower than a face-to-face chat would. Last year, The Wall Street Journal explored the way Hollywood is responding to the “storytelling challenges of a world filled with unglamorous smartphones.”

It’s only a matter of time before the rest of the industry catches on and this seamless integration of text and screen becomes commonplace — so for now, let’s salute the early adopters.

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Hollyoaks (2010)

The long-running British teen soap Hollyoaks has employed onscreen text bubbles since at least 2010, according to fan message boards. It makes sense that a show about teenagers would be one of the first to understand the importance of giving the virtual world prominence in the real one.

Sherlock (2010)

BBC’s Sherlock is lauded often for its use of onscreen texts, which differs slightly from the other’s we’ll see here. As Graeme McMillan at Wired UK points out, the way Sherlock and other characters use technology is strikingly familiar to us:

Internet and cellphone usage abounds throughout the cast, especially as a shorthand for emotional connections (or the lack thereof). Whether it’s characters refusing to answer certain peoples’ calls, or Sherlock nagging Watson into submission via text onslaught, we all know what these things mean because we do them ourselves.

McMillan ends his piece with the same haunting revelation my professor put forth: “Is Sherlock actually about how transhuman we’ve all become without even noticing?”

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Disconnect (2012)

In the movie Disconnect, about tech-addicted people searching for human connections (hmm, sounds like a regular Wednesday), Jason Bateman’s character finds out via text that his son’s girlfriend “Jessica” doesn’t actually exist. The onscreen chat messages are simple, white text, sans bubbles, and underscore the emotion of the scene as Bateman’s eyes tear up upon learning the news, silently, on such a small screen.

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House of Cards (2013)

Steven Soderbergh said of David Fincher’s House of Cards, “It’s the most beautiful thing you’ve seen on a screen.” Whether you agree with this statement or not, it’s hard not find the floating text bubbles appealing for both their realism, and their surrealism. Plus, Frank Underwood’s threats seem extra vicious when read in succinct bursts of characters.

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Glee (2013)

Glee explored another 21st-century concept with its use of onscreen texts and chat messages: catfishing! New student Ryder meets his soulmate online, and the texts help bring his inner feelings onto a visual plane. Reading flirty chats is so natural to us now, it’s easy for the audience to identify with the hope Ryder feels through such a limited interaction.

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Noah (2013)

If you missed Noah — no, not the Aronofsky Bible epic, but the 17-minute short that debuted at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival — you need to see it right away. The entire film takes place on a teen’s computer screen, which seems dry, right? Until you realize that this is how many of us spend 8+ hours every day. Noah logs into his girlfriend’s Facebook account, sees some messages that seem suspicious, and the relationship unravels before our eyes. The beginning is NSFW, but the rest hits close to home, as we watch from a perspective that’s all too familiar. It’s a reminder that all of our virtual interactions are real, and have real consequences.

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Non-Stop (2014)

Liam Neeson’s latest Liam-Neeson-y film, Non-Stop, takes place on a small plane. Such a limited setting could get pretty claustrophobic and dry, but the filmmakers chose to add onscreen texts so we read the mysterious assassin’s threats as Neeson receives them. The texts bubbles appear skewed, at angles (perhaps to seem better suited for an action movie?), and serve as dramatic irony underlying the plot of the film: the anonymous text-murderer sets Neeson up so it looks like he’s the assassin, but only Neeson and the audience can see the texts as they appear and know the truth.