BlackBerry chronicles the rise and fall of the first smartphone, screening on opening night at the SLO International Film Festival on April 25

Co-writer and director Matt Johnson helms this story about the rise and fall of BlackBerry, the world’s first smartphone. It follows tech developer Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel), his sidekick Doug (played by the director), and the rest of the team at their Canadian start-up company Research in Motion, as they revolutionized the way we communicate … until the iPhone made BlackBerry obsolete. (122 min.)

click to enlarge BlackBerry chronicles the rise and fall of the first smartphone, screening on opening night at the SLO International Film Festival on April 25
Photo courtesy of The San Luis Obispo International Film Festival
WILD RIDE BlackBerry inventor Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel, far left) and his tech team are credited with inventing the world’s first smartphone, in BlackBerry, screening exclusively at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival.

Glen: This is less a story about a revolutionizing tech invention and more about the people and personalities at the center of a game-changing device. Think of it as a mismatched geeks, tech bros, and ruthless businessmen story where egos, greed, and hubris collide. Lazaridis is the brains of the operation, whose big idea is to put a full qwerty keyboard on a handheld device, exponentially speeding up typing time. If you’re old enough, maybe you remember trying to type a message with what was essentially a telephone keypad. But the film barely cares about the tech aside from trying to figure out how the network might support this new device. Instead, it busies itself with those who want to exploit the geeks and their invention. I especially enjoyed Glenn Howerton as Jim Balsillie, who joins the team and drives them to success. He was a total dick and the source of the film’s darkest comedy. When it all implodes, you can’t help but think they got what they deserved. Tragedy’s never been so fun.

Anna: Ah, the BlackBerry used to be so cool, right? Famously, President Obama fought tooth and nail to keep his until the White House staff ripped it from his hands. This is definitely a story of the characters around the invention of this now dated piece of technology. We watch as they struggle through hurdle after hurdle, desperately trying to stay relevant while their rivals quickly catch up to them. We see Steve Jobs introduce the iPhone (that’ll never catch on, right?) and the mad dash relay race the dudes at BlackBerry were in the middle of. You couldn’t sell this story on the device alone—it’s pretty much obsolete these days, so this film is smart to focus on the people who all had their hands in the mix trying to make big bucks in the early days of personal devices.

Glen: At its peak, BlackBerry had 45 percent of the market. Unfortunately, as smart as Lazaridis was, his big mistake was refusing to evolve. He was so enamored by his full keyboard idea that he was unable recognize it had become obsolete. With smart, briskly paced dialogue and a rogues’ gallery of characters, the story feels very propulsive, and its two hour run time zips by. When the film screens this week at the film festival, attendees are getting a sneak peek. It doesn’t officially come out until May 12. It debuted in February at the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival, and then it made its U.S. premiere at the SXSW festival. It’s pretty cool that our festival got it for opening night.

Anna: Very cool! It’s very interesting to look back at what technology was during this time and how clunky it seems now. I think at the end of the film it said something along the lines of BlackBerry currently having less than 2 percent of the market, so you can see how far it has fallen from its heyday. The film stays engaging and focused on the human story. While the characters do nerd out on the technology they’re developing, the filmmakers are smart and recognize that their audience probably doesn’t need to know all that much about it. This is a great get for the film festival—I hope audiences enjoy BlackBerry as much as I did!

New Times Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and freelancer Anna Starkey write Sun Screen. Glen compiles listings. Comment at [email protected].

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