"The widespread adoption of mobile phones must be one of the worst things to ever happen to horror movies, since now every movie now has to include a bullshit explanation for why they can't use their phone, like losing their battery or their signal. It's become a laughable cliche."
With the advent of the computer age, writers still don't quite know how to work Cell Phones into a story. It used to be all you had to do for a survival adventure story was plop a bunch of people away from electricity to completely strand them at the mercy of wild animals/serial killers/zombies — but cell phones are making that harder and harder for writers to do believably. Even in comedy situations, there are some plotlines (such as Locked in a Room) that only work if the characters don't have cellphones. This means that cellphones are lost, broken, stolen, and run out of power far more than they should. The range of cellphones is also ridiculously reduced from what they are in real life even if elsewhere in the story reception is better than normal — maybe writers are confusing them with two-way radios, or don't realise that most modern phones allow long-distance and international calls. Or, you know, maybe they're deliberately using Artistic License to artificially preserve the drama.
Note that, during widespread disasters such as the London bombings or 9/11, cell networks often fail, for several reasons: Overload due to everyone trying to reach each other, cell towers being damaged, and civilian phones being locked out to let emergency personnel have all the capacity. However, in many situations where this trope takes place, the problem is far more localized; being lost in the werewolf-infested woods isn't a national emergency.
Often watching older sitcoms, from the early days of cellphone use (80s-90s), the time of the cellphone's primitive ancestor, the car phone (60s-70s) and the days when mobile phones were not available (50s and before - early mobile phones existed as far back as the 40s, but were not available for civilian use) you may suffer many a facepalm as you count how many situations could have been prevented with just having a cellphone (Larry David and others have commented on how prevalent this is in Seinfeld - the plots of almost half of the episodes in the series simply wouldn't work if the characters had cell phones). You can even make a Drinking Game out of it.
A sub-trope of Plot Sensitive Items, and see also The Radio Dies First for this trope applied to military or naval communications. Futuristic communications not working have a Phlebotinum Breakdown. See Super Cell Reception for when the cell phone does not fail when it rightly should.
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One justification for not using a cellphone was shown in an old campaign from the early 2000s by T-Mobile for their unlimited plan. This was before all companies even had unlimited plans, and had a set amount of "minutes" that you could talk on the phone for free. After that, you'd have to pay-per-minute. In these commercials, with Jamie Lee Curtis as the spokesperson, some sort of emergency would be presented and a group of people would argue over whether or not to risk wasting their minutes. This would make it a Justified Trope if the party in question isn't using their cellphone because they're out of minutes.
Many people are still using pay-per-minute plans, as they generally don't have contracts with high early termination fees and they can work out to be cheaper than unlimited plans if you don't make many phone calls. But even on a phone with no SIM card or any minutes, as long as it has power and a signal, you can dial 911.
Yuuichi: Kanzaki-senpai!!! (draws out cell phone) Cell phones won't work either? Seriously?
Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children uses phones as a metaphor for emotional contact. The result of this is that Cloud and Vincent's reluctance to use phones (Cloud only uses his voicemail, and Vincent doesn't own one at all) is a symbol of their inability to integrate themselves into normal life, and so when Cloud refuses to call for back-up it's all right, because it's all a metaphor. Tifa lectures Cloud about how not getting rid of his cell phone shows he still cares about people deep down, and Vincent later announcing his surprise arrival to help the heroes out after all with the line "where can I buy a phone?" At the end, Vincent buys a phone and Cloud starts using his again properly.
Made funnier when Vincent tells Cloud to pass on a message telling Yuffie to stop calling his number.
Of course, the fact that they're symbolic doesn't mean they aren't also Product Placement.
Also, the funniest moment in the entire film: after a long fight, Tifa defeats Loz, and the Final Fantasy victory music is faintly heard. It's Loz'sringtone!
Cell phones are only used once in Shakugan no Shana II, by an odd pair of villains, with the normal-looking one trying to coordinate activities over it and complaining about the terrible signal, only to find out the the problem was that his partner had turned its phone off. (Well, can't expect a centipede with a flaming skull on top to have much appreciation for modern technology, anyway.) The good guys use spell charms to communicate, but the one dangerous occasion where everyone thinks to carry one before hand, they all get disabled in their enemy's first attack.
In Hayate the Combat Butler, Izumi gets her cell phone stolen in a scene that doesn't seem to have any effect on the overall storyline. She ends up getting lost on a class hiking trip and unable to call anyone because of it, which then leads to her own arc.
It seems Higurashi no Naku Koro ni was specifically set in 1983 to avoid this trope. If any of the kids had cell phones (as most all Japanese schoolkids do) then there would have been no way for the Yamainu to isolate Hinamizawa and sterilize the village without someone from the outside finding out.
However, one arc of Higurashi no Naku Koro ni (Yoigoshi) did need to mess around with cellphones, being set a couple of decades into a Bad Future. It's a pretty typical case of no reception followed by broken cell phone. It's messed around with a bit, however. The character who had the cell phone only pretended that he didn't have coverage and then broke his own cell phone because he was afraid of someone finding him (He'd gone to Hinamizawa in a suicide attempt that he'd chickened out of).
Ofcourse, being set on a private island far from the coastline, the setting could have been well outside the normal cellphone coverage.
Subverted in The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service. A villain had been hibernating for 20 years to run out the statute of limitations on a crime. When the heroes found out, he locks them in his hibernation vault. The fact that he hadn't considered their cell phones is taken as evidence that he really was 20 years out of touch.
No one in Maria-sama Ga Miteru has a cell phone, despite it being set in the present. The author acknowledged this in Word of God, stating this was one of the reasons the show is best viewed as a fantasy story and not as a school drama.
Cell phones often aren't mentioned in Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex because every member of Section 9 has radio implants (or an always-on Internet connection) and they're used about like cell phones would be. However, one episode does show that Section 9 is capable of jamming civilian model phones on short notice.
In Detective Conan there are numerous times where a cellphone doesn't work right as the characters found out they were locked in a creepy old house with a psycho killer.
Conan was also almost caught by Ran when she found his "Shinichi" cell phone.
On the other hand, Conan solves cases as Shinichi long-distance via cellphone all the time without issue.
In Saitama Chainsaw Shoujo, Kirisaki Fumio disables the local cell towers around her school and cuts the phone lines to ensure that nobody can call the police while she goes on a killing spree.
The Busou Renkin of Doktor Butterfly, Alice In Wonderland, acts as a cellphone jammer. This was done deliberately so that the school he attacks could be totally isolated.
In Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Madoka and Sayaka find an unhatched witch in episode 3, and Madoka realizes she can't call Mami because she doesn't have her number. A similar problem comes up in the next episode, but with Homura instead of Mami. Besides the weirdness of Mami not giving her number to either of her student Magical Girls, the cellphone avoidance is unnecessary, since there aren't really any situations where being able to call someone would have made a huge difference. In fact, if Madoka had called Sayaka in episode 4, that would have helpfully explained Sayaka's Big Damn Heroes moment a few minutes later.
The author of the GleeSlash FicClouds Between Their Knees, in which Kurt and Dave Karofsky are lost in the woods after a plane crash, actually asks the reader to ignore the fact that Kurt would probably be able to use his phone to at least find out where they are.
In The Cries Of Haruhi Suzumiya, there's no contact between Hinamizawa and anything outside it. Whatsoever. Justified, because Hinamizawa is actually in 1983, and cell phones don't exist yet.
The first phone call from a truly portable handset (still the size of a brick, though) to the general phone network was made on April 3, 1973, by Motorola's Martin Cooper, and by 1979 the world's first mobile network appeared in Japan, though initially only around Tokyo. So it's possible that by 1983 it reached Hinamizawa (the nationwide coverage was achieved in 1984), but it's still unlikely that modern phones (most of which are 2G systems like GSM) would work on this 1G system.
The Total Drama Island story, Legacy mentions that cell phone coverage in the vicinity of the camp is "spotty". This is presumably why the show's staff used two-way radios.
Films — Live-Action
Inverted beautifully in Phone Booth. How else could he get help?
He was using the phone booth in the first place because his genre-savvy wife (who suspects that he is cheating on her) checks the phone bill.
On a press tour, when Robert Zemeckis, the director of Cast Away, was asked what was in the parcel that Tom Hanks delivers at the end, he said it was a fully charged, activated and ready-to-use satellite phone. (He might have been just a bit tired of answering that question.) Hanks reportedly did a double-take and stared at Zemeckis for a really long time.
Averted in Jurassic Park III. The protagonists spend a good deal of time chasing after a satellite phone instead. Any cell phones that they might have had would have been useless; they were on an island far from any towers.
This is mixed with a Behind the Black moment, when they hear the sound of the phone but not the freaking huge dinosaur approaching in whose stomach the phone is. Clearly, the phone is quite louder than the dinosaur itself!
Justified in the film 30 Days of Night after The Renfield steals and burns the cellphone of everyone in town. It doesn't break the Willing Suspension of Disbelief because of how it's presented: the opening scene is a pair of policemen finding a pile of melted plastic with a few recognizable satelite phone bits.
Cop: I can understand [teenagers] burning cell phones — rebellion against your parents and all that. But who the hell steals satellite phones and burns them?
Subverted in The Strangers; the victims' cell phones work fine, it's just that the killers destroy the first, take the battery out of the second one, and the aforementioned victims are too stupid to think to check the body of their friend for the third. This creates some Fridge Logic, as you can't help but wonder what the killers would have done if they had been able to call the police.
The Crazies: The cell phone signal goes down as the virus starts to spread. At least here there is somewhat of an explanation, seeing as the military likely cut off phone connection in the town.
The movie Fracture. The protagonist attempts to get, and eventually receives, a court order barring the suspect's wife/victim from being removed from life support. Rather than phoning the hospital, the protagonist drives there, and by the time he arrives, the wife is dead.
That doesn't even involve cell phones... courthouses and hospitals have normal land-line phones in them.
The Blair Witch Project supposedly took place in 1994 because if it took place in 1998, it'd be too implausible that none of the main characters has a working cell phone. Of course, with all the implications that supernatural forces were at work, it's doubtful they would've functioned properly even if they were present.
In Domino, the title character is on the phone getting instructions, and thanks to poor reception she hears "remove the sleeve from his upper right arm" as "remove the right arm", with predictable results.
In Way of the Gun, various characters have difficulty reaching each other due to their junky cell phones failing to work.
In House On Haunted Hill 1999, after the house has mechanically sealed itself, beginning the game of murder, Chris Kattan's character gives the classic line informing the guests that the phones are dead. Many simultaneously respond, "I've got a cellphone." All of them reach for their phones, but none of them can get a signal. Again, it's presented as a sign of supernatural interference.
Erin Brockovich. Whilst in a late-night diner Erin comes across a rather creepy man who seems to be making overtures, though it turns out he has access to crucial documents that could help the case. When Erin steps out to her car to call her boss for advice she finds her cellphone isn't working, so she makes a rush for a nearby payphone instead.
Realistically treated in The Host, where Hyun-seo is trapped in the sewer without a recharger and with terrible reception. She's able to get one call through, which is what starts off much of the plot.
In Panic Room, the heroine and her daughter are trapped in the panic room while the house is being robbed. They immediately go for the land line, only to remember that she never hooked it up, thinking it was unnecessary. In a suspenseful trip outside the room, she manages to get a cellphone, only to find there's no reception in the steel-plated walls.
In Shrooms, a bunch of teenagers go into the wilderness to eat shrooms and do wacky teen stuff. Then people start dying and they want to call the cops. And all of a sudden all their phones are missing. Turns out the killer hid all of them right before starting the killing spree.
Drag Me to Hell had the protagonist pull out her cell phone during a haunting. The demon performing said haunting responds by draining her cell phone battery and making a scary zombie face appear on the phone's screen. Oh Lamia, you are such a card.
The heroine of While She Was Out chose exactly the wrong time not to keep her phone charged.
In the first Saw movie, Jigsaw leaves a cell phone in order to inform Dr. Gordon that his wife and daughter are hostages. Naturally, the first thing Gordon does when he finds the phone is to attempt to call the police, but it turns out that the phone is somehow modified to only receive calls, and not even dialing 911 works.
In Funny Games, the killers "accidentally" knock the cell phone into a sink full of water thereby killing it, very much truth in television.
In P2, the heroine tries to use her cell phone to call the police after she's been kidnapped. Unfortunately, there's no reception, and when she finally does manage to make the 911 call, the call disconnects within seconds. Justified , since the heroine is locked in an underground parking garage.
The film adaptation of Tomorrow: When the War Began sets up the fact that the main characters can't get cell phone coverage while camping as they are too isolated early on. When they return to town to discover that everything seems abandoned, they all check their cell phones, only to discover that they still can't get coverage (presumably as the invading army has in some way caused the towers to go down). This circumvents the issue of why no one tried to contact them to warn them, and why they can't later use their cell phones to contact each other. The novel was published before cell phones were as ubiquitous as they are now.
Inverted in The Call. The majority of the film is driven by the conversation between a 911 operator and a kidnapped girl locked in the trunk of a car.
Drake & Josh are forever losing their cellphones to trap them in odd situations.
Drake: Why don't Craig and Eric have cell phones? Josh: Because Papa Nichols threw Eric's against the wall and broke it, and Craig's mother thinks cell phones cause ear sores! Drake: Craig does get a lot of ear sores...
On The X-Files, Mulder and Scully used cell phones fairly realistically but several times they were forced to leave a message when something urgent was to be communicated. They also often drive significant distances to speak in person rather than using their cell phones even when phoning would be perfectly safe.
Of course, living in a Crap Sack World run by a shadow government with alien technology and no accountability, Mulder really is completely justified in being paranoid enough to doubt that the person who answers when he calls Scully is, in fact, Scully if he can't see her face. Heck, there are episodes where he'd be advised to doubt it's Scully when he can see her face. For that matter, is it ever "perfectly safe" to use a phone to discuss a government conspiracy when elements of the FBI, NSA, and CIA are actively trying to monitor and/or block your investigation?
Either mobile phones weren't all that popular in the USA before 2004 or the writers of Friends chose to ignore their existence, because a good deal of the plots of many episodes would not have worked with mobile phones present. For example, the premise of the story of Joey missing the audition for Mac and Cheese. Chandler would have easily found Joey had he had a phone.
In LOST, Boone is shown trying to use his phone just after the crash, but he can't get reception on an island in the middle of the South Pacific.
Ironically, people with functional satellite phones arrive in the fourth season, but they can only call each other.
The people currently off the island seem unwilling to call each other, preferring instead to show up in person, usually with a dramatic reveal. However, they do call each other when it's urgent, like when someone's life is in danger.
Also, the Island travels through time, which can't be good for reception.
An episode of The Dead Zone had the main character lost in the woods somewhere; he tried calling for help on his cell phone, but its display showed "NO SIGNAL".
Maxwell Smart and the wireless rotary-dial telephone concealed in the sole of a shoe is often cast as an unreliable weakest link; for instance, it would work quite well until Max steps into a puddle.
LexCorp tracks down the Justice League by using their cell phones as GPS locators in Smallville. Apparently they all carry their phones around all the time, which in Aquaman's case, doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
Angel is really bad at using phones, and there were several occasions in the series where he had let the charge run down, just forgot he had one with him, or couldn't work out the intercom.
Angel: These things were definitely cooked up by a bored warlock.
So the guy who had been alive for hundreds of years treated technology the same way our grandparents do?
A very silly plotline on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip called for Danny and Jordan to get locked on the studio's roof so that they'd be forced to discuss their relationship. Aaron Sorkin does find it within himself to pay lip service to the idea that they could just call someone to unlock the door... by having them wander around holding their phones aloft, complaining that they can't get a signal. On a roof. In the middle of L.A. For no reason.
Babylon 5: In one episode, Marcus Cole (who doesn't wear a hand link because he's not part of the station crew) finds another person's communicator. However, he can't use it to call for help, because the communicator will only work for authorized crew members. Given that the hand link is a military communicator, this could be considered justified, though one would think that even a civilian (or, for that matter, Ranger) would carry at least a civilian communications device—and we never see him use one.
Burn Notice loves this, though it's good about justifying it; anyone meant to be incommunicado will have their cell phone jammed, taken away, or secretly sabotaged. The villains are usually portrayed as pretty Genre Savvy about this as well, further justifying the trope.
In the NCIS episode "Boxed In", Tony and Ziva are trapped in a shipping container and try desperately to get signal on their cell phone - justified here, as the container would act as a Faraday Cage.
Once the murders start in Harper's Island, both the landlines and cell phones all stop working. In the associated web series Harper's Globe, we find that the internet isn't working properly either.
An episode of Community had the group trapped in an 'spacecraft simulator' which was actually an old RV fully covered in metal. They are sealed in, the RV is being towed and they can't get cellphone reception from inside (Faraday Cage?). However, there is a short wave radio connected to an outside antenna so they can communicate with 'mission control' once they get it working.
In Smallville, Lois' phone runs out of batteries when something nasty is going down and she needs to make a call. She even says "Really?!" when it happens, as if disbelieving that such a cliche could happen to her.
Invoked in Psych. Mr. Yang leaves a cell phone for Shawn as a clue. Shawn promptly throws it into a river to change the rules of Mr. Yang's game.
Also in another episode, when Shawn and Gus are locked in a museum overnight, Shawn drops and breaks his cell phone after finding out a violent suspect's car is in the parking lot. Gus's cell phone battery was seen to run out earlier in the episode.
Cell phone jammers (see Real Life below) were part of the mid-Season 10 crackdown at Degrassi that also brought in metal detectors and school uniforms. Interestingly, here the writers seem to be unable to write without them; one scene showed Sav on a pay phone in the school, calling another character who was also inside the school building at the time.
In The West Wing two-part episode "20 Hours in America," Josh, Donna, and Toby get stranded at a campaign stop and can't get in touch with the rest of the staff because they're already up on Air Force One (there was also a mixup with time zones).
An episode of Castle ("After Hours"), features Castle and Beckett looking for a phone for the completely legitimate reason that they'd just escaped from a couple mob hitters, who had taken their cell phones as well as their guns away. (Castle can't believe they still make pay phones when he finds one. Too bad the mob guys cut the pay phone's cables, too.)
In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Disaster, many of the difficulties faced by the crew of the disabled Enterprise could have been avoided if their communicators had been working. Partly justified in that the main computers (which link the communicators together) were down, although Fridge Logic kicks in when you wonder how an Away Team talk to each other when the Enterprise is out of range.
The show Modern Family goes out of its way to avert this all the time. Part of the show's original concept was to defy the belief that modern inventions (and primarily the cell phone) had made a modern sitcom impossible.
In Helix, which centers around a CDC team dispatched to an artic Research Inc to deal with an outbreak of The Virus, the remote location of Arctic Biosystems precludes normal cell phone use. It has a state of the art satellite communication system with 10 gpbs, but it only functions for an hour each day. Then its sabotaged directly after the CDC's lead researcher decides he's lost control of the situation and states that he intends to call for backup.
Luke: Join the club. I've gone through seven phones in two years.
This concept is explored here; basically, Romeo and Juliet would have had a much happier ending if the two of them had had cell phones.
In the Twilight book New Moon Edward conveniently smashes his phone in grief because he thinks Bella is dead, thus enabling a dramatic flight to Italy solely to demonstrate that she is, in fact, still alive.
Ciaphas Cain, HERO OF THE IMPERIUM!, deals with this problem on a regular basis. However, it's justified: due to his origin note A hive world, aka an extremely overcrowded planet he is very competent at orientation in closed spaces and thus constantly gets assigned to missions that deal with such spaces. Such as tunnels or caves. Which are, you know, underground, so it's hard to keep contact. In For the Emperor, for example, it was a major plot point, since he managed to find out the true reason behind the conflict and must find his way to the surface as soon as possible to prevent a large-scale war, since he can't just tell that over the radio.
In Good Omens, Crowley and two Dukes of Hell describe what they have done to aid the spread of evil that day. One Duke corrupted a politician. The other tempted a priest. Crowley disabled every cell tower in Central London for 45 minutes... during lunch hour.
The other demons don't understand. Crowley figures that spreading low-level frustration to thousands of people on a regular basis is much more efficient in the corruption of souls than the one-on-one approach — a thousand grouchy people spread a lot more misery around than one awful person.
Peter Grant from Rivers of London faces a similar problem to Harry Dresden's, except that his power only trashes electronics if he actively uses magic without disconnecting their power supplies, first. In later novels, he subverts this trope by getting a phone with a cut-off switch that he only flips "on" to make a call or check his texts.
In Tricky Business, the villains have a jamming device activated before they board the ship so nobody's cell phone can place a distress call (and the heroine does try).
In Percy Jacksonandthe Olympians, cell phones aren't so much useless... as just a very good way for demi-gods to have monsters jumping down their throats to tear them open. Either way, they're not used.
Cell phones in The World Ends with You have no reception. The dead can't talk to the living, after all. They can receive messages from the Reapers, and your in-game menu is supposedly the cellphone menu, but other than that they're powerless. When Joshua actually talks to someone on his, Neku instantly turns suspicious (Joshua's talking to Hanekoma).
When the blackout hits in Devil Survivor, cell service goes down as well, which the characters note as odd, because the towers shouldn't be affected ("But the phone centers have their own backup power, right? This doesn't make sense!"). Later in the game, the lack of cell service is alluded to, when someone claims to have called someone outside the lockdown; which isn't possible, of course.
And in the sequel, JP's are in control of the only still-working phone network, eventually allowing the protagonists to communicate with each other once they join.But when trying to save people from their Death Clip fate, there is always one reason or another to prevent them from contacting each other:
When saving Daichi, the hero and Io haven't joined JP's yet.
Inuyasha: The Secret of the Cursed Mask. one of the first things your character does when he/she is sent to the feudal age is checking a cell phone, which of course has no signal.
In Mermaid Swamp, Rin tries to use her cellphone to call an ambulance when one of her friends begins falling victim to a mysterious disease, only to find that its battery has run out and that she can't recharge it due to the power going out in the house.
In Barrow Hill, you can't use the cell phone you find because the local tower isn't working. You can subvert this trope by fixing the tower, but the only person available to make contact with is just as trapped and in trouble as you.
Justified in the Sluggy Freelance story "That Which Redeems", thanks to the demons having a very poor understanding of cell phone technology.
Tryka: What's it roaming for? Shouldn't it stay here? Reakk:Bad phone!
Justified again in the "bROKEN" story, when the Fate Spider's Apprentice intentionally makes Torg forget to charge his cell phone, forcing him to leave it off when communication would have been vitally important.
Horror movies were better before they always had to figure out a reason to explain why the main character can’t just use their cell phone to call for outside help. Now every movie has to come up with some clever excuse: "Oh, the vampires stole all the phones in the night!" Or,” this is a dead zone”, or “the government blocked all the cell signals to cover this whole event up”. Or, “we’re all Amish!”
Played straight and justified in Worm during the events of Chapter 16, Monarch. Dragon shuts down all cell phone communication in the city. It provides a tactical advantage and she uses the cell towers to help control her armors.
Played with in a Danny Phantom episode where Danny and his mother gets stranded in the middle of a forest. Off ALL the techno gizmo she has with her, the only thing she doesn't have: a cellphone — because you can't fight ghosts with a cellphone, silly. Danny doesn't have his cellphone with him either (for no apparent reason), so he and his mother have to survive alone against the big, spooky forest (and Vlad).
In Code Lyoko, the main characters all have cell phones, and never have any problem with reception or anything. Usually their phones would be broken while fighting on Earth. (Strangely, they always have a new cell phone by the next episode, even if no one pressed the reset button. They never seem to complain about having to buy new cell phones so frequently, though...)
Averted in a Daria episode, "The Teachings of Don Jake". Daria and her family nearly meet their demises in the middle of the forest on a camping trip. Jake, Helen and Quinn trust Jake's excellent woodsman skills and eat some berries from a bush, causing them all to go humorously insane. Daria, the only sane one, just as she is beginning to panic, relied "on mother's hypocrisy to see them through the crisis", when she hears her mother's cell phone go off in the backpack. Her parents' plan for the weekend was to be cut off completely from the outside world- Helen cheated.
An episode of Jimmy Two-Shoes had Lucius getting swallowed by a sea creature. While in its mouth he attempts to use his cell phone, to no avail.
The "Freaky Friday" Flip of Justice League Unlimited had the Flash (in Lex's body) attempting to contact the rest of the League through a cell phone, only to find that there's no service. A justified case, since (unbeknownst to the Flash) the building he was inside was A) in a large swamp (and thus likely to be quite distant from the nearest cell tower) and B) inside a cloaking field meant to keep the location undetectable.
Parodied in Dan Vs. "Technology." Chris attempts to call for help after crashing in the woods, only for his cell phone to explode in his hand as he dials.
In What's New, Scooby-Doo? episode "There's no Business Like Snow Business", a journalist was having trouble with her cell phone while ranting about audience, which made the gang regard her as a suspect while all Fred pointed out was that he thought cell phones worked well in that area. At first, it seemed he was Completely Missing the Point, but it turned out to be a Chekhov's Gun, as the Monster of the Week was a machine radio-controlled by the Villain of the Week, whose radio signs were causing interference on the cell phones.
In Batman: The Animated Series, when Batman wants to call the mayor and warn him of a plot, he is told there is no phone, and Bat's won't work either - the host is a scientist who chose a dead zone for his experiments so as not to be disturbed.
British comedienne Jocelyn Jee Esien plays a "chav" schoolgirl who in every sketch is shown sitting on a bus screaming "CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?" into her phone, despite no one making noise near her and no obvious reason for communication failure.
That's eerily similar to a recurring gag from the British series Trigger Happy TV, where a cell phone ring would be heard before a man with a comically large phone (something the size of an old boombox) stood up and started screaming into it, usually while in a movie theatre or a restaurant.
The central idea here is much older, and generally expressed with the phrase, "I'M ON THE TRAIN!"
Despite what any communications company might say to the contrary, there are still plenty of coverage blind spots in the twenty-first century, in suburbia, California let alone rural areas, virgin wilderness or exotic locales. Hence faulty cells and cheap networks remain available plot devices alongside:
Old lithium batteries that don't hold a charge.
Small phones that get lost in sofas or down storm-drains along with keys.
Weather effects like Midwestern US thunderstorms that blot out reception
Really buggy, poorly tested interfaces, especially for multi-purpose phones.
Poorly written applications (Java, Flash Lite, iOS, Android, etc.) that interfere with normal phone operation.
Badly designed antennas that weaken the signal when you hold your iPhone 4 wrong.
Phone batteries that are so sensitive to moisture that walking through a rainstorm with a phone in your pocket can fry them, let alone if they actually get immersed in water.
Since cell phones rely on radio, some pieces of the trope are Older Than They Think. One of the first bits of information that amateur (and many professional) radio operators exchange is a signal report, or RST, Readability, Signal, and Tone. This is very important information in poor radio conditions; skilled operators can still get the message through if they know what they're up against. "Bars" are a way to abstract this for mass-market phones.
Also, since cell phones rely on radio, they can be jammed and blocked, by both natural (see above about thunderstorms) and artificial means. In fact, in many countries (though not the USA), cell phone jammers can be legally purchased and used; some churches and movie theaters use them to prevent interruptions. A villain who doesn't want his victims to be able to call for help could arrange to jam his victims' phones.
Jamming is often set up by bomb-squads (though it's illegal in some countries), since bombs may be radio-triggered (no word on whether anyone's ever set off a bomb by the jamming interrupting a signal, but it'd be a hell of a nasty plan).
A later form of jamming can still allow emergency calls through (operating at the level of the call-out call-in signals, rather than just jamming the frequencies), so allowing this sort of jamming would not have some of the disadvantages that jamming all signals brings, hence calls to allow it.
A lot of schools put up cell phone jammers in an attempt to stop kids texting during class. (once again, this is illegal in the USA)
However this only applies to using true radio jammers, buildings that block coverage (intentionally or not) are still fully legal.
A Faraday cage can severely hamper or eliminate radio (and thus cellular) communications. These doesn't have to be sophisticated or even deliberate - a metal building such as a warehouse can act like one.
A tinfoil hat actually can form a Faraday cage, which means crazy conspiracy theorists are slightly less delusional than they seem. About the tinfoil. The transmitters in their heads still aren't real. Or are they?
As noted in the above-linked article, for a Faraday cage to be effective it must be a closed structure with no openings larger than roughly 1/8th of the shortest wavelength it is supposed to shield against. A tinfoil hat, being very much an open structure, does not qualify. The poor reception inside metal-framed buildings is not a Faraday cage effect, it is due to such things as the metal framework creating an interference pattern in the nodes of which the signal level is greatly reduced. Conversely, in the antinodes of the pattern, the signal level is increased. In remote areas with poor reception it is sometimes possible to improve signal strength by sitting inside a car, in the right position to place the phone in an antinode of the pattern created by the window apertures. The behaviour of radio signals passing through metal things with holes in is not intuitive; the Faraday cage effect is only one of many related factors, and given that structures for use by humans necessarily contain holes much larger than the wavelengths used by mobile phones, it is usually of much lesser importance than other effects.
For a first-season MythBusters experiment, Adam built a Faraday cage and tested it by checking his cell phone while inside. Yay, no signal!
Any thick wall, like cinderblock, can block cellular reception quite easily. It's also easily blocked by dirt; basements are notorious for their poor reception.
Zona del Silencio in Durango. It's not the only one, and such areas are called "skip zones".
In the UK, there are still rural areas that have patchy coverage at best. The construction of new masts tends to be opposed in anyone's back yard, especially when near a site of natural beauty, or a school. Even in more populated areas, it's possible to have to walk to the other side of a building in order to get a reception.
The Meteor network was notorious for this when they first started providing their service. If you lived outside of Dublin, you could generally expect to get only one bar of signal if you were lucky and this tended to go if you happened to move four inches to the left. Thankfully, this has been remedied.
Some foreign companies do not even provide any coverage in the UK. This means that when you are having holiday in the UK, you either have to use the telephone cells or can't call at all.
In Australia the major mobile phone providers claim to provide coverage to 97% of the population, not 97% of the country. Beyond the highly populated southeast corner (between Brisbane-Sydney-Melbourne-Adelaide) coverage is very sparse indeed. As  this map proves.
And there are remote areas of Canada where coverage is patchy to non-existent...say, much of central Winnipeg.
Most of Russia. Even populated locales have blind spots, travelling along major roads makes your cellphone a crapshoot, and good luck finding any network in the middle of taiga.
Mountainous areas tend to have poor or spotty reception due to the mountains blocking the signal.
Unfortunately too common in Brazil, where phone providers are in a deep "race to the bottom".
During the 2013 flash-flooding in Colorado, both physical phone lines and cell towers were taken out by flood waters. Cue this trope, and a lot of trouble finding out who was actually in need of rescue and who was safe but couldn't call out.