It's a pretty common occurrence for audience members of a certain age. They're watching a movie or TV show and the characters are stranded somewhere with no hope of rescue, or rushing to deliver important information in time. The audience member wonders, "Are they stupid? Why don't they just whip out their cell phone and solve this problem right now?" Then they check the back of the DVD case and find the answer: this movie was made in 1992. The characters don't have cell phones.
Just for Fun, here's a laughably incomplete, not-at-all-definitive list of stories set after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, but before the widespread availability of cell phones, that would have been over really really quickly if cell phones had been available. For when cell phones are ostensibly available but never seem to work when they're needed the most, see Cell Phones Are Useless. For cell phones that work when they shouldn't, see Super Cell Reception.
- Spirited Away: What Really Happens: A family trying to get to their new home accidentally get lost near a mysterious tunnel. They explore the tunnel to find what seems to be an abandoned amusement park, they eat the food served there and turn into pigs, because those were intended for the spirits. The girl now has to save them before it's too late. If They Had A Cell Phone (Or Heck, GPS For That Matter): The GPS leads them to their new home. The rest of the movie never happens.
- The Blair Witch Project: What Really Happens: A group of film students becomes lost in the woods not far from civilization, bickers endlessly about who lost the map, and then falls victim to... something. Probably a witch, given the title. If They'd Had a Cell Phone: "Google Maps says if we keep walking this way we'll reach the highway in about twenty minutes."
- Home Alone: What Really Happens: A storm knocks out the McAllisters' power and phone lines the night before their big trip to France, causing their alarm clocks to reset and everyone to oversleep and forget to bring their young son Kevin. The power is restored in short order, but the phone lines remain down for the duration of the film (and the Police are Useless and give up after a very cursory attempt to check on him, and all their friends and neighbors are either having the same phone troubles or are also out of town) so his parents have no way of getting in contact with him short of getting back home as quickly as possible given the holiday travel rush and inclement weather. Meanwhile, burglars plot to burgle their house, and Kevin resolves to defend it by any means necessary. Hilarity Ensues. If Kevin Had Had a Cell Phone: "Stay put, we're going to call whoever's closest to you on their cell phone so that they can come take care of you until we can get there. And for the love of all that's holy, if any potentially murderous burglars try to break in, call 911 instead of creating an obstacle course of booby traps!"
- Alternatively, they wake up to an alarm set on their cell phone, with no more of an inconvenience than starting your vacation with a less than fully charged cell phone.
- Rounders: This film's basic plot probably wouldn't have been much different, but it would have been a lot less visually interesting, since most of the conversations that take place in places like hole-in-the-wall bars and public bathhouses could more easily have been conducted by telephone. Not only does nobody have cell phones (not unusual for a film made and apparently set in the mid-nineties), nobody seems to have phones, period (yes unusual). Every time any character wants to talk to any other character, they have to figure out where that character is likely to be and physically go there. In New York City, where getting across town is not a quick or convenient prospect. The characters must spend an ungodly amount of time off-camera in taxi cabs or subways.
- The Ref: Due to the absence of cell phones, there's no way to call the relatives of the couple Gus is holding captive and tell them "Christmas dinner's off". Of course, if they didn't arrive, we wouldn't get any interesting plot or Character Development.
- Rocky Horror Picture Show: What Really Happens: A young couple's car breaks down on a lonely road on a dark rainy night. They take refuge in a nearby castle, which doesn't have a phone. Wacky hijinks ensue. If They'd Had a Cell Phone: Brad or Janet calls AAA on their cell phone to come rescue them. The rest of the movie never happens.
- Alternatively, Brad calls Scott to let him know they're coming with some big news, and Scott tells them he won't be available (due to staking out Frank's castle in search of Eddie) - so they never even start their fateful trip.
- Cujo: What Really Happens: A woman and her young son are trapped in a car in the middle of summer by a rabid dog. They are trapped for two days and nearly die of dehydration and heat exposure before the woman, in an act of extreme desperation, ventures out and fights the beast. And then her son dies anyway. If They'd Had a Cell Phone: "Hello? Castle County Animal Control? Yes, yes that's right. And bring some water bottles too, if you'd be so kind."
- Harry Potter: What Really Happens: During the trio's extended camping trip (far away from the magical wards of Hogwarts which interfere with technology and are the usual reason why such things as telephones aren't an option) in Deathly Hallows, Ron gets frustrated under the influence of an Artifact of Doom and abandons his friends after an argument. Both sides almost immediately regret the fight and wish to patch things up, but Harry and Hermione have to keep moving so Ron can't find them again for weeks. If They'd Had a Cell Phone: "Sorry, mate, I've been a right prat, I have. Take me back?" (Although granted, Muggle technology had been unavailable to the characters for so long that it's likely they might have forgotten it was an option even if cell phones had been more widespread in 1997, when the story was set.)
- In the Seinfeld episode "The Chinese Restaurant": What Really Happens: As the protagonists endure a long wait to be seated at a Chinese restaurant, George wants to call his Girl of the Week to invite her to eat with them. She is expecting his call, and he is afraid she'll think he stood her up and won't want to see him again if he doesn't get through. He is repeatedly frustrated by people hogging the only available payphone. Meanwhile, the girl calls the restaurant trying to reach him, but the maitre'd calls out the wrong name and George misses her call. Hilarity Ensues. If They'd Had a Cell Phone: "That's right, I'll text you the address. Care to join us for Plan 9 from Outer Space afterward?"
- The first Resident Evil: What Really Happens: A small city's elite STARS law enforcement agency sends their "Alpha Team" to investigate the disappearance of "Bravo Team". As soon as their chopper lands, they're attacked by zombified dogs, their pilot panics and abandons them, and they're forced to take refuge in a creepy mansion full of zombified humans and worse. Ultimately it turns out their team leader betrayed them by luring them there to help a sinister corporation gather data on their newly developed bio-weapons. If They'd Had a Cell Phone: "Hi? Yeah, this is Chris We were attacked by some sort of rabid animals; whatever it is seems to affect humans too, send backup! Oh, and tell Brad he's fired!"