Steve Jobs is a perfect cube of a movie, not unlike the tech visionary's design for a key failure in his career.
Danny Boyle's movie is meticulously crafted to artful specifications, written in Aaron Sorkin's torrential style and acted to perfection by a superb ensemble. Yet like Jobs' NeXT Cube in 1988, there's one obvious question that isn't satisfactorily answered:
What does it do?
The late Apple CEO, played by Michael Fassbender with focus verging on monotony, doesn't know his Cube's purpose in Boyle's equally unsure movie. It's one of three acts Sorkin devises, focused on backstage turmoil before the launches of three Jobs products, the first two failures.
Each timeframe — in 1984, 1988 and 1998 — is filmed by Alwin Kuchler in film stocks from those years, from grainy 16mm to high-def digital, reflecting the rapid advances Jobs helped to inspire. Otherwise, Steve Jobs isn't as much about his technology as the artificial humanity behind it.
Fassbender's Jobs 2.0 (after Ashton Kutcher's try) doesn't resemble the real thing except in narcissistic intensity, lifting his timbre to make harsh remarks sound even crueler. Jobs changes little about himself over the course of Sorkin's script, except for whatever armchair psychology the author (working from Walter Isaacson's biography) offers in Act 3. However, the unflattering portrait is so complete that Boyle's final, feel-good shot seems like a fantasy.
In 1984, Jobs is launching Macintosh, after a controversial Super Bowl ad that Apple's CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) and the board grudgingly approved. Backstage, Jobs is demanding the computer say "hello," which his chief engineer (Michael Stuhlbarg) can't do. Meanwhile, Jobs' ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) is demanding more support for the daughter, Lisa, he denies fathering.
Popping in occasionally is Jobs' founding partner Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), lobbying for acknowledgement of his Apple II system that saved the corporation. Jobs hated the system, and coolly tolerates "Woz." Playing referee in this sleek geek scrum is Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), head of marketing and Jobs' conscience-in-vain.
These characters rotate in and out of all three segments, through the Cube release, up to the revolutionary iMac launch. Their issues with Jobs don't change, they get cycled through Sorkin's roundelay strategy of giving everyone a supporting Oscar chance. Boyle's job is setting up these verbal arias in interesting places, which he does, especially the film's pinnacle showdown between Jobs and Wozniak, set in the San Francisco Opera House orchestra pit.
Yet it is disappointing to see a Danny Boyle movie that doesn't really resemble one but might be better if it did. Boyle is led by Sorkin's inability to recognize the profundity of occasional silence. Sorkin's signature walk-and-talk rhythms dictate what Boyle must do, rather than unleash his surreal spirit.
The result is a perfect cube, which is all Jobs demands in 1988 to convince the public to buy what he's selling. It doesn't need to do anything except look good on display, which Steve Jobs certainly does. What else does it do? Not much for me.
Contact Steve Persall at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.