2018 Milwaukee Film Festival – Review – GENERAL MAGIC
GENERAL MAGIC is about a 1990s technology startup with a vision of the future. That vision was basically to implement the 21st century smartphone with 1990s technology. The company went out of business due to the limits of technology, a business model that didn’t foresee the internet of all things, a price point that didn’t make much sense, and getting beaten to the market by Apple’s Newton, among other reasons. But, although the company went bankrupt, GENERAL MAGIC argues that the vision lived on and the people that believed in that vision ultimately succeeded.
GENERAL MAGIC is told chronologically, but with the benefit of hindsight. That’s perhaps an obvious structure, we all know that the company General Magic isn’t around like Apple, Google, Amazon, and dozens of startups that are part of our everyday lives. It saps the film of a bit of suspense, but it does allow it to do a deep dive into the inner workings of a visionary firm. And how vision isn’t always enough. General Magic was so far ahead of the technology curve, that there was no way that they could have really succeeded, but there were obviously baby step items that could have succeeded. As you watch the company crumble, sometimes due to the impracticality of its leaders and brilliant workers, you also see what might have been. Say, a simpler, cheaper, email application, for instance. And you watch everyone miss the boat with the creator of eBay in their midst and his ideas being ignored.
That irony is a big part of what makes GENERAL MAGIC an interesting story worth telling. And, in general, the story is told well, but perhaps a little too straightforward. The structure of the film contains no surprises. Nor are there surprises in the filmmaking, drone footage mixed with a lot of talking heads and archival footage. The lack of a star personality also prevents it from being a breakout. But, content is king and the content makes it a compelling story.
It’s in the closing chapter that I think GENERAL MAGIC makes the case of what really makes the story compelling. The brilliant people with a vision moved on and succeeded later when the time was right. They may not have done what they were aiming for at General Magic, but some went to Apple and created the iPod and iPhone. And others are found among the most successful technology companies in the world. When the film ties the past to the present, there’s an alchemy that’s only hinted at in the straightforward history.
GENERAL MAGIC had its last screening at the Milwaukee Film Festival on Monday, but it’s sure to turn up on PBS or streaming services in the future. But, there are still a few days left in the festival. The 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival runs from October 18, 2018 to November 1, 2018. Information and tickets can be found at Milwaukee Film’s website mkefilm.org.