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Computers in Science Fiction - Contemporary Movies

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Concepts and Elements of Science Fiction in TV and Films
Computers In Science Fiction: The Basics
Computers In Science Fiction: Classic Movies | Computers In Science Fiction: TV | Computers In Science Fiction: Novels and Short Stories
Robots in Science Fiction | Androids in Science Fiction | Cyborgs in Science Fiction

Computers shown in contemporary movies (ie, those set in the same time period as they were made) tend to have exaggerated (or downright impossible) capabilities. They rarely show any signs of slowing down (the hourglass seems banned in Hollywood) and never crash. Many of the stories exploit our own fears about computers, that they can hack into our bank accounts and make trains crash or planes crash. In reality this does not happen because those systems are built on safety-critical design processes and aren't vulnerable to hackers or sabotage. In short: you cannot use the Internet to make the President's toilet back-flush.

Most of these movies are about technophobia, which is based on the fact that most people have trouble keeping up to date with the latest computer technology. However, some film makers make the mistake of tying down their technology, by using real terms, which makes the films date badly - Mission Impossible, for example.

Ultimately, these computer movies are about humans losing control of the world and letting the computers do more and more for us. People who worry about the things portrayed in films happening in real life are probably too late. The world is already run by computers.

Note: This entry is not intended as a definitive guide to all computers in contemporary movies. Rather it is intended to show the evolution of the way computers are portrayed in movies, which has changed as our knowledge and perceptions of computers have changed.

TRON (1982)

Although much of the action in TRON takes place in a futuristic setting, it is actually set in the time the film was made, with computer games becoming the gateway to another dimension. The Master Control program (MCP) at computer company Encomm has become self-aware and is stealing other computer programs and making them play games. It's fairly unbelievable, but it is science-fiction fantasy after all. The start of the film has a nice fade effect with Flynn (Jeff Bridges) working on his computer and his program Clu (which looks like him) running away from the interceptors in a tank.

The main problem with the film is that it is set in the 1980s, where the idea of a self-aware computer or program was still laughable.

War Games (1983)

This cult film starred Matthew Broderick as a hacker (before the word 'hacker' was in popular usage) and Ally Sheady as his girlfriend Jennifer. Many people working in the computer industry today list this film as the main reason they got into computers. This is certainly true for some h2g2 Researchers.

David (Matthew Broderick) is trying to break into a computer games company to play their new games before they are released, but accidentally breaks into a military computer (War Operations Planned Responce or WOPR, also known as Joshua) in control of the nation's nuclear defence plan. Playing a game of Global Thermonuclear War, David accidentally triggers Joshua into playing the game for real.

David: Is this a game, or is it real?

The film actually made some interesting projections. Joshua is a learning machine, it remembers its mistakes and gets better at playing the game. This film was made before such computers were even designed, let alone common knowledge.

The main point of the film is that Joshua never learned futility. The example given is Tic-Tac-Toe (known in the UK as 'Noughts and Crosses'). Jennifer is asked by WOPR's creator, Stephen Falken, if she still played it.

Jennifer: No.
Falken: Why not?
Jennifer: Cos it's pointless, there's no way to win.
Falken: Exactly!

Eventually Joshua does realise the futility of nuclear war. While trying to crack the missile launch codes, Joshua plays every possible game of Tic-Tac-Toe against himself, then proceeds to play every possible nuclear war against himself.


True Lies (1994)

This portrayed Arnold Schwarzenneger as a spy. In the opening act of the film he is breaking into a billionaire's home, climbing up the outside of a snow-covered building and planting a bug. The bug is attached to one of the computer's ports and transmits back to a van parked nearby.

Yes! I'm in! I'm down! I've got my hand up your skirt and I am going for the....
Just copy the god damn files OK!

This method of espionage is highly effective. Some corporations are banning the use of palm top computers, as they can bypass all the firewalls and security designed to keep external hackers out. By plugging it into the USB port, and connecting to a GPRS or 3G mobile phone, a hacker can gain direct access to a company's network.

Clear and Present Danger (1994)

This movie, adapted from a Tom Clancy novel, does not violate any computer science premise. There are two key points in the film that involve computers. One is when the password-locked disk is being hacked by the CIA computer technician. The password is made up of parts of birthdates important to the owner. This is a common mistake made by people who need easily-remembered passwords. Any password linked to their life makes it easier to guess.

The second part is when Harrison Ford's character, Jack Ryan, has hacked into his colleague's computer (with the help of the computer technician again) and is trying to copy files as they are deleted. This is based on a real computer system. It allows one computer to access the files on another computer, as long as they have the password. The file sharing computer can tell which other computers are accessing the data. This is how he gets caught.

Both of these examples of computer technology in this film are believable and do not violate known laws of physics, or computer operating abilities.

Goldeneye (1995)

Much as it is difficult to rat out a Bond movie, the 'steal money from the Bank of England then blow up a nuclear bomb in space, creating an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) to erase the theft' method would not work for several reasons.

  • The Bank of England uses encryption which is impossible to break.

  • The Bank of England's computers are shielded from EMP.

  • You would need to be in a bank to gain access to the network to start with, it's a secure backboned network. (Meaning you cannot hack into it through the Internet.)

  • They'd know you were stealing the money the instant you tried to move it.

  • There isn't a bank in the world connected to the e-business network that would accept the money, not even in Cuba.

The Net (1995)

Sandra Bullock discovers a conspiracy to hack into key government and bank mainframe systems and has her identity stolen by those involved. She has to track them down and trick them into infecting their own computer system with a virus. Ironically, although the scam requires the target companies to change their virus protection software supplier, the bad guys do not practice what they preach (they have no virus protection on their own systems).

Not wanting to burst anyone's bubble, but the level of conspiracy seen in The Net, is impossible. No company is stupid enough to suddenly change their security software company without good reason. Successful hacker attacks are usually hidden from the public (not shown to the waiting media, as in this film) because it usually hides incompetence on the part of the system administrators. At the time of writing, a recent really bad virus to go around the world was allowed to propagate because of a security hole in the Microsoft SQL server. There had, however, been a patch to fix it available for over a year.

Mission Impossible: The Movie (1996)

When the hacker character describes what he needs to complete the mission, he is using the worst kind of techno-babble; a mixture of real terms and gibberish.

I'll need one of the new prototype 686 computers. You know, with the artificial intelligence processors.

There are some real terms in this line. 686 processors are (technically) Pentium II class processors. Unfortunately, the film was released slightly after Pentium II computers hit the shops, making this line sound slightly, well, cheesy. Computer science graduates actually cringed at this point.

The part with Tom Cruise hanging in the mainframe room with the pressure sensitive alarm, trying to steal information from the terminal computer. There's just no way that any sensible security system would leave the terminal running if the alarm had been set.

There a joke in the computer industry that goes like this:

Tom Cruise has just seconds to save the world. He reaches into his dinner jacket and pulls out the ZIP disk with the codes to deactivate the bomb. He puts it into the drive, only to discover...
It's MAC formatted!

Independence Day (1996)

The main computer part of this film's plot was the computer virus that Jeff Goldblum uploaded into the alien mothership's computer. This part was just too far fetched. The computer on the ship would have to be much more sophisticated than Goldblum's notebook. It would be based on completely different principles, might not even work on binary arithmetic, the notebook would certainly take a very long time 'negotiating with host'.

The virus probably wouldn't have any effect on the computer, as it would be based on different computer architecture. Essentially he would have needed to write a computer virus for an operating system he didn't understand. It would be like trying to talk in a language you'd never heard.

Charlie's Angels (2000)

This film featured a mainframe computer in Red Star's headquarters that the Angels had to break into. Cameron Diaz has to negotiate a pressure sensitive floor to get to the interface. Again the real question is, why didn't the alarms go off when she opened the 'dome' of the computer while the floor alarm was still on?

Discussing the 'contact lens to fool the retina scanner' plotline shall be kept short here, except to say: this is impossible. Even if you pulled the guy's eye out (Like Wesley Snipes did in Demolition Man) the scanner would still be able to tell the difference as there would be no blood flowing through the veins behind the retina.

Swordfish (2001)

Hugh Jackman plays a hacker called Stanley. He is hired by John Travolta to hack into a central bank system and transfer illegally held money into his own organisation (a black op anti-terrorist organisation). It involves deploying a virus into the system.

Sadly, for such a good film, the technology behind this heist is not possible. Stanley using the multi screen computer is one example. Although multi screen computers are common (used in servers for example) it has proven problematic to create an operating system on multiple screens that is usable, and doesn't overload the user with too much information. Most people prefer (a) a big screen, or (b) one display screen with several desktops on it (UNIX and Windows 2000 use this to allow greater working space on the screen).

Honourable Mentions

Ghost (1990)

Sam's use of passwords always raises some eyebrows. They always follow the format of: XXX-XXXX. The Xs do not obscure characters, the way the modern * does. His password really is seven Xs and a hyphen.

South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999)

As with everything in South Park, there is a great parody of hacker films when Stan is trying to 'reroute the encryptions' to get through to a Canadian server. The film is satirising every computer movie ever made. Stan presses no more than a dozen keys before getting round the Internet block.

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