Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our short breakdown reviews of festival films, VR previews and other special event releases. This review comes from the Tribeca Film Festival 2018.
Silicon Valley is stereotyped with arrogant geniuses single-handedly forging ahead, including Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and many more. But the startup General Magic of the 90s, as portrayed in a new documentary of the same name, was a team of tender visionaries at the wrong time in the right place.
General Magic is sometimes invented in the 1990s the iPhone. The startup came from Apple to design a smartphone-like device called Pocket Crystal, but it collapsed when its incredibly ambitious project faced technical limitations and poor planning. General Magic, by Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude, offers a detailed, loving look at the short rise and sudden fall of the company.
What is the genre?
What is it about?
In 1990, a handful of Superstar Apple employees founded a startup called General Magic to build a groundbreaking pocket-sized computer. This vision was so convincing that General Magic went public before showing a finished device. Thanks to the work of its charismatic CEO Marc Porat and some members of the Macintosh development team, including software geniuses Bill Atkinson and Andy Hertzfeld, it has become one of the most exciting companies of the decade.
Instead, General Magic became one of the most dramatic failures in Silicon Valley after it had brought a miserable sales record to a single generation of hardware. It was launched on the newly-popular Newton PDA by the newly popular World Wide Web, which was unable to juggle a complicated set of business partnerships and was undercut by its own parent company, Apple. But the former employees of General Magic finally defined the modern tech landscape – virtually the entire smartphone market. As one of the film's interview themes puts it, General Magic is "the most important company that comes from Silicon Valley, of which no one has ever heard."
What is it all about?
Silicon Valley Idealism in its best form and purest form. General Magic is like a non-fictional version of Halt and Catch Fire where nobody fights, and almost everyone ends up incredibly successful. The film credibly argues that General Magic was trying to build something like a modern smartphone, and this plan was doomed to failure in the early 1990s. While the company clearly suffered from management problems and a high dose of hubris, the film focuses on missteps that are almost adorable. In an interview Andy Hertzfeld complains that the delivery of deadlines creates a virtual coin toss in a game app.
For a film about failure, General Magic is often aggressively optimistic. The company went down, its story goes, but it still seethed an entire generation of Silicon Valley talent. His staff included future White House technology chief Megan Smith, Andy Rubin, future Android co-creator, future eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, and future iPod and iPhone co-designer Tony Fadell. General Magic 's interviews with Fadell bring his story to the full: He started as one of the youngest collaborators of General Magic and finally brought his dream through the iPhone to breakthrough.
But there is an undertone of melancholy fatalism as well. In General Magic ideas like the smartphone are destined to exist, and would-be creators can only hope that they were born at the right time to get their names on the patent. With all the success that General Magic has seen younger teammates, high-profile personalities like Porat and Hoffman never seem to have emotionally recovered from their failures. You can lay the foundation for the iPhone, but it's a bittersweet triumph – after all, someone else did.
Is it good?
General Magic contains a lot of successful tech icons reminiscing about their younger days, a format that's ripe for complacent myths. But the themes of the film are self-confident, open to their mistakes and often contagiously enthusiastic. It's easy to root for their younger self, especially if you know how thoroughly they are crushed in the end. The company did build something exciting, and General Magic captures this sense of excitement well.
The uncoordinated hyper-ambitious of General Magic was financially catastrophic, but it created a wealth of quirky hardware and software footage for the film to explore. Some inventions seem to be really forward-looking, like a collection of animated proto-emoji stickers. Some are impractical but intriguing, like a "city" computer interface with buildings for apps. Some simply go home to see how far computing has come, like the final design of Porat's iPhone-sized concept, which eventually looks like a high-tech design.
If there is a dark side to the idealism of the film, it is General Magic's Lionization of the punishing development crashes. Some employees have clear eyes on how much they sacrificed, especially Porat, whose relationship with his wife and children collapsed. And the film's references to people falling asleep under desks and building bunk beds in the office are exciting narrative tricks. But today, these stories help other companies convince their employees to work virtually to death, making them seem less harmlessly romantic than they might have done in the 1990s.
Nevertheless, during a particularly complicated moment in Silicon Valley General Magic recalls how captivating stories can be about technology.
What should it be?
PG or PG-13 for a little flight of light.
How can I actually look at it? 19659023] General Magic is currently looking for sales.