There’s no denying that computers have become a central figure in the rapid growth and success of Western culture. With it brings commentary. In the second half of the 20th century and the first decade-and-a-half of the 21st century, humans have turned to the motion picture to tell the stories they deem important and noteworthy. The growth of technology has not only presented us with our new lifestyle, it has virtually erased the lifestyle of our ancestors, and this revelation leads to fear.
Many writers over the past 50 years have tried to use the growth of technology as an allegory to explain the changes in human society over time. No place has this become more prevalent than in the cinema. Movies are made, in large part, to capture the imagination of the viewer. No change has been as revered or anticipated as the change that has been made with the aid of our amazing technological advancements. In fact, computers have changed moviemaking forever. The computer has allowed filmmakers to capture, light, and edit their movies digitally, and tackle the role of technology in society. Here are five films that embrace the awe people have of technology and the fear that comes with the unknown.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Partially based on the short story The Sentinel by renowned scientist and science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey has become the film that’s synonymous with the shift toward the importance of high-quality visual effects that many moviegoers now take for granted. Written and directed by the late Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey was about the evolution of man from a being that hardly resembles a current-day human, to a being that is able to develop technology so complex that it allowed for deep space travel and exploration.
2001: A Space Odyssey is widely renowned as one of the most awe-inspiring and influential films ever made. The computer that takes up residence in this film, Hal 9000, is an artificially intelligent supercomputer that administers many of the operations of the Discovery One mission for Jupiter in the film. Hal 9000 is lauded as omnipotent and, in its own words, “foolproof and incapable of error.” Turns out, this is not the case, and Hal 9000 begins to sabotage the mission by first murdering the scientists in cryogenic hibernation, and then soon after Dr. Frank Poole, leaving Dr. David Bowman as the only surviving member of the mission team. After some harrowing moments where “Dave” is briefly exposed to the vacuum of space, he disables Hal in one of the most dramatic moments of the film.
In essence, HAL 9000 is portrayed as the antagonist of that part of the film, and his destruction acts as the effective commentary that Kubrick and Clarke (who wrote the movie) had designed. This kind of technology, despite the title, is still not currently available, as people are lukewarm (at best) about the development of computer entities that are programmed omnipotent.
In John Hughes’ immensely popular Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, one of the central themes was how Ferris was able to manipulate the school principal, Mr. Rooney with the use of a computer and other technologies of the day. Another film starring Matthew Broderick, WarGames, makes our list. The use of technology in this movie sets the tone for the age of the personal computer and the dangers of relying on technology to manage core functions of national defense.
WarGames is about a high school student, David Lightman, who begins the movie by dialing into his school’s network and changing his and a female classmate’s grades using his IMSAI 8080 microcomputer. From there he begins using that technology to dial into computers of a video game developer, searching for a way to play games. He finds the games after dialing all the numbers in the town where the game developer is located. He is surprised by some of the other titles in the game cache, specifically one titled, “Global Thermonuclear War”, but cannot gain access.
He takes the password to a couple of people who he hopes can help him, and they suggest looking for a “back door” to access the games by finding out more about the developer of the software, Stephen Falken. David guesses the password and accesses the games list. He begins to play Global Thermonuclear War, not knowing that he is actually hacking into the new NORAD supercomputer, known as the WOPR (War Operation Plan Response). WOPR is now searching for launch codes that would annihilate targets within the (now-defunct) Soviet Union and causing World War 3. David is promptly picked up by the Air Force and held for espionage.
David, now conscious that he has made a grave mistake that may endanger the future of human existence, escapes from NORAD and sets out to find Falken. Despite official documents that claim he’s dead, David and Jennifer (Ally Sheedy) set out to find Falken at an address they found. He is alive and living under the assumed name David Hume. At first he seems indifferent to their plight, but ultimately ends up helping them disarm the computer by teaching it a valuable lesson, that no one wins at war.
Technology is forefront in the story of this Cold War-era film. Not only is the supercomputer prevalent, but so is the personal computer, and the use of computer networks. All three have been developed to be essential in the 21st-century world, giving credence that Hollywood has made personal computing a topic as far back as the early 1980s.
The Matrix (1999)
If there was a single movie that could exemplify society’s shift to computers, it would be the Wachowski’s The Matrix. At a time when the Internet was being pushed to broadband and the speed of computers were making it easier to connect with people from all over the world, The Matrix debuted to huge fanfare. The Internet itself was a relatively new technology and the capabilities of the World Wide Web made it a natural fit for the basis of the dystopian future that lays ahead for humanity in the world of the Matrix.
The movie begins as with a woman clad in leather running feverishly from a man with a gun in a suit. She answers a phone and disappears, laying the groundwork for the narrative that comes ahead. The story then shifts to Thomas A. Anderson (Keanu Reeves), a software designer that has a dual life as the hacker, Neo. He is contacted through his computer and asked to “follow the white rabbit”, a clear homage to Lewis Carroll's Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It is not the last time that this reference is made.
Neo meets with Trinity (another famous hacker played by Carrie-Anne Moss), who introduces him to Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). Morpheus tells Neo that he has a choice: To know what the Matrix is, or go on with his life in the same fashion as he was before.
As it turns out, we all live inside a computerized world known as the Matrix, and only a select few are able to leave and see the world for what it really is. Using specially-designed computers, the “free” (those who are able to leave the Matrix) hack into the Matrix and go about trying to take on the sentient programs or “Agents” that protect the integrity of it. The climax of the movie sees Neo accept his place as the one who is prophesized to free humanity from computers in this epic fight sequence:
The resolution sees Neo become “the one”, which basically makes him a sort-of digital demigod and he begins his quest to free humanity from the iron grip of the machines. The Matrix was followed by two sequels to help wrap up the loose ends that were left in the first movie, but as a stand alone science-fiction film centered around computers, there are few more entertaining.
The Social Network (2010)
The Social Network was made at a time when social media was gaining a foothold in society. Prior to the mid-aughts, there was no mainstream use of social media, thus no reason to create a movie that deals with the creation of software. Some other titles had dealt with business computing, including a 1999 television movie titled, The Pirates of Silicon Valley, that dealt with the rivalry between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and how the competition created the world that many of us take for granted today.
The Social Network, however is one of the only mainstream movies dealing with software creation. The movie follows college sophomore, Mark Zuckerberg, and the creation of Facebook. Directed by David Fincher and written by Aaron Sorkin, the film brought out the heavy hitters to tell the story about the creation of Facebook, which subsequently has become one of the world’s most successful endeavors.
The movie begins with Mark (portrayed effectively by Jesse Eisenberg) on a date, where he is promptly dumped. He then creates Facemash, which is an interface where he hacks into a school’s database for female student’s pictures to put on a site where people were open to rate their attractiveness. From there he is contacted by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and their partner Divya Narendra (played by Armie Hammer, Josh Pence [body only], and Max Minghella, respectively) to create a social website for the students of Harvard called Harvard Connection. He agrees to help them.
After accepting the Winklevoss’ offer, he contacts his friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and they build and go live with thefacebook.com.
Mark drops out of school, and with the help of Napster creator Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) he begins to build his empire. In doing so, he basically defrauds Saverin (who stayed in school) and is sued by him and the Winklevoss’ and Narendra for dilution of shares and theft of intellectual property, respectively. Despite the resistance, Mark becomes the youngest billionaire in the world (at 23!).
These four movies properly embody the evolution of computing over the past 50 years. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Hal 9000 was less of an idea of what computers would be like in the future, and instead it was pure fiction. The most accessible computer of the time, the Digital Equipment Corp. PDP-8, was the size of a refrigerator and available for the price of a modest three-bedroom house. Kubrick and Clarke did their best to project what the future would look like. The Social Network, however, is basically about a single, web-based application. Even though they were incredibly accurate about some aspects of the future technologies, such as the tablet computer, and the ability to video chat over a wireless network, there’s very little the filmmakers of the former could have imagined that could portray the importance that computing would hold in today’s society.
Of course there are many other computer-based movies, especially as the prevalence of computing and other digital technologies have grown to be essential to the society itself. One thing is certain, that future technology remains one of cinema’s favorite topics. What other “computer” movies have interested or entertained you? Tell us your favorites in the comments.