Concepts and Elements of Science Fiction in TV and Films
Computers In Science Fiction: The Basics
Computers in Science Fiction: Contemporary 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
This entry is ordered chronologically with release years to show how computers in science fiction movies have evolved over time. Some of these computers are sentient, others are not. This entry is not intended as a definitive guide to all computers in science fiction movies. Rather it is intended to show the evolution of the way computers are portrayed, which has changed as our knowledge and perceptions of computers have changed.
There have, of course, been computers in films almost as long as films have dealt with science fiction. As ideas of futuristic machinery began to incorporate automated functions, machines with flashing lights slowly evolved into what we would now recognise as a computers.
One of the first 'superstar' computers in a science fiction film was HAL, the chillingly emotionless system in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Subsequent computers have become more complex, although some are throwbacks with limited abilities, like Shoshone. Most of these computers are sentient, although this is not the same thing as saying they are intelligent (for example, Mother in the first Alien film).
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Name: HAL 9000
Self aware: Yes
Number of Users: Possibly limited
HAL 9000 (Heuristic ALgorithm) was the computer in the cult classic 2001. He is the computer system on board the USS Discovery, the first manned scientific expedition to Jupiter. HAL does refer to himself in the first person.
I enjoy working with humans, and have stimulating relationships with them.
The crew believe that they are on a scientific mission, but in reality they are being sent to investigate an alien monolith in Jupiter orbit.
As the Discovery approaches Jupiter, HAL apparently malfunctions, predicting failure in the AE35 antenna that is used to communicate with Earth. The two crew investigate the unit and can find nothing wrong with it. They come to the conclusion that HAL is malfunctioning and devise a plan to turn him off, but HAL is eavesdropping on their conversation by reading their lips. HAL kills one crewman (Frank Poole) outside the ship (by ramming the pod into him in eerie silence) and the three other members who are in suspended animation before the final crew member, Dave Bowman, disconnects him. As Dave is disconnecting him, HAL seems to realise his own mortality.
Please stop Dave. I'm afraid.
HAL's malfunction is caused by the simplest of computing errors. Frank Poole and Dave Bowman are unaware of the real mission they are on. HAL was given full knowledge of the mission and autonomy to complete it on his own should the crew become incapacitated or killed.
HAL was instructed not to reveal to them the true nature of the mission. He was instructed to lie. Since the function of the 9000 series computer is the accurate processing and storage of information without distortion or concealment, the two commands contradict and HAL becomes trapped in a feedback loop. He became paranoid. This fact was revealed by Dr Chandra, HAL's creator, in 2010, when a Russian expedition to Jupiter tries to determine what went wrong.
The irony of the situation is that the AE35 unit does fail, meaning that the antenna can no longer be moved. Dave has to orientate the entire spacecraft in order to communicate with Earth.
Author Arthur C Clarke denied using the letters HAL to stay one step ahead of IBM.
HAL also has a twin sister called SAL 9000, appearing in the film 2010. She is virtually identical, but has a blue eye, as opposed to HAL's red one, and a female voice. She is Dr Chandra's personal assistant, and he used her for diagnostics on HAL during the nine years after he malfunctioned.
Interface: Screen (Keyboard interface)
Gender: Female (assumed)
Self aware: No
Number of Users: One
Mother, computer on board the ore freighter Nostromo had a small part in the film Alien.
Mother detects an unknown signal coming from an unexplored planet and diverts to investigate, then awakens the crew from hibernation. The crew are a little puzzled to be awakened outside the solar system, and land to investigate. The conditions of their contract require them to investigate any unknown signal source.
Mother's interface is quite strange. Only the captain can access the computer's interactive interface and he must be in computer control room to do this. Queries are typed into the keyboard and Mother answers in text on the screen. When the crew awake, the captain asks:
What's the story Mother?
It is unclear if this is a valid system query, or if Mother can understand human colloquialisms. In either case, Mother tells him there is a signal coming from the planet. Later in the film, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) uses Mother to ask for the secret mission Nostromo is on. Mother tells her that the mission is to capture an alien and bring it back to Earth.
Many things about the Alien universe are unclear. For example; have humans met any other alien races? Have they found any other alien artefacts for races they have not met? Why were the giant elephant-like aliens transporting the alien eggs? Why did their ship land/crash on the planet? For the most part, fans of the film say it's better with the mystery intact. (It also has the advantage that subsequent films can explore these questions without violating any canon rules laid out in the original film.) For the curious, the signal coming from the alien ship appeared to be a distress call.
The last film in the Alien series, called Alien: Resurrection, was set on a military ship with a computer called Father.
The Terminator Movies (1984)
Self aware: Yes
Number of Users: Unknown
The computer in these movies is called SkyNet and it is waging a war against humanity.
SkyNet was originally designed to run the USA's national defence systems, controlling nuclear missiles, stealth bombers, orbital weapons and the like. However, once activated it began learning at a geometric rate. It eventually became self-aware. The generals in charge panicked and tried to unplug it. SkyNet retaliated by launching its nuclear missiles at Russia, knowing that the Russian counter-attack would kill its enemies in America. SkyNet then started waging a war on humans, with machines and ultimately terminators (machines that look human). Unable to defeat the humans in the future, SkyNet sends two terminators back in time to kill the human leader, John Connor. One was sent to kill his mother-to-be, the other one about 15 years later to kill John as a child. Both failed as they were defeated by a warrior and another Terminator respectively, both also sent back in time by John Connor.
SkyNet actually creates a temporal paradox by trying to kill John. The warrior sent to stop the T101 terminator, Kyle Reese, was in fact John's father. SkyNet could have won the war by not creating the time portal machine at all.
However, the paradox gets worse. The first terminator was crushed, but part of its processor survived and made its way into the hands of scientists at the computer company Cyberdyne. Cyberdyne used this processor to make a quantum leap in their research and create neural processors, eventually winning a military contract to make autopilots for stealth bombers and eventually creating SkyNet. So if SkyNet hadn't sent the first terminator back in time, it would never have been built in the future. This also means that because SkyNet designed the terminators, it created itself. It is unclear if SkyNet is aware of the paradox.
Anyone lucky enough to have been on the Terminator 2: 3D ride at Universal Studios, Los Angeles will know about a small sub-plot to the story. It involves another terminator taking John to the future (on a motorcycle) to destroy SkyNet.
John: What's that building?
John: I see. And remind me, why are we going towards it?
Flight of The Navigator (1986)
Name: Max (Nickname)
Interface: Voice via robotic 'head'
Self aware: Yes
Number of Users: One
This is regarded as one of the best 'family-friendly' science fiction films, not least because it deals directly with temporal dilation caused by light speed travel.
David is abducted by a Trimaxian survey ship, which takes him to their home world for study. The trip, experiment and return journey take only eight hours. They want to see how much data his memory will hold. Unfortunately, because of human physiology it is not possible to return David to his point of origin in space and time, and because of the light-speed flight, David is returned to Earth eight years later. This is naturally a shock to him and his family. He then steals the spaceship and gets back to his own time.
Max obeys all of his instructions, but after attempting to copy the data stuck in his head, Max accidentally copies part of David's personality. This causes him to have mood swings, sulk and even release control of the ship so that David has to figure out how to fly.
Max is a highly advanced computer, but little is known about him; his entire interior and exterior is made of a silver-like material that can be moulded into any shape at will. Although he appears on radar, he can move so fast that no Earth aircraft can catch him.
Pilot: He just took off!
NASA: Can you follow him?
Pilot: Follow him? I can't even see him!
Despite his complexities, Max is vulnerable and fallible, which is surprising for a computer. He is captured after he crashes into electrical pylons while looking at daisies. The crash erases all of his navigational data, including his star charts. This is why he needs David, to download the charts stored in him.
Lawnmower Man (1992)
A special effects film with no real attempt to keep within the boundaries of reality. Some even accuse it of being eye-candy (ie, a film made to show what could be done with CGI). It is only listed here because it (badly) explores the effects of a man becoming an intelligent computer program. The physics behind this is unclear, as the only connection between him and the computer is a fairly standard VR suit.
There are two notable computers in Sphere, neither of which is 'Terry'1.
Interface: Holographic screen
Self aware: No
Number of Users: One user per terminal
|Name: None: the Sphere
Self aware: Unknown
Number of Users: N/A
A spaceship is discovered under three hundred years' worth of coral growth at the bottom of the ocean. The computer on the crashed (or landed) American spacecraft is impressive enough. It creates a holographic screen in front of the user and allows them to cycle through menus and select options. Two of the lead characters (Sharon Stone and Dustin Hoffman) discover it and find that the ship was caught in the a singularity (black hole) and transported back in time2. It is interesting, in the light of the Millennium Bug that so blighted the turn of the 20th Century, to see that the computer scientists of the future haven't learnt from our mistakes, as the dates in the computer are formatted as '17/02/46'. They spend time trying to guess if this is 2046, 2146 or 1746 (the century the ship landed in).
The most interesting computer in the film is the sphere itself. It is an alien intelligence test. It has some unusual properties.
Hoffman: Does anyone else notice anything odd about this sphere?
Barnes: Yes. It's surface is like mercury, except mercury is liquid at this temperature.
Hoffman: That not what I mean. I mean this sphere is reflecting everything in this room....except us. I hate to be the one non-scientist to point this out.
The sphere is an intelligence test sent by aliens. It gives the humans the ability to make their thoughts 'real'. The crew of the spacecraft all killed each other with their thoughts, and most of the scientific expedition also get killed off. The three survivors pass the test by using the ability to deliberately forget about the ability and the sphere. It then disappears into the sky, presumably to report to its control.
The premise of an intelligent test is well known in science fiction. The monolith in 2001 is one, as is the warp flight requirement in Star Trek that is required before first contact is made.
Alien Cargo (1999)
Self aware: Possibly
Number of Users: Two
This rather obscure TV movie is, despite a relatively low budget, an excellent film.
Its main storyline is a spacecraft freighter that becomes lost above the ecliptic (the orientation of the orbit of the planets), and with 97% of their fuel spent which puts them effectively beyond rescue.
The eight crew members work two-man shifts for a few months each. The rest is remaining in hibernation. The second crew awakes to find a year has passed, the ship is lost and the interior is wrecked and the other two crew members dead, apparently having killed each other.
The on-board computer is called Shoshone (pronounced shô-shô'nê). She is remarkably unhelpful, being relatively dumb and incapable of operating beyond her programming. When asked why she didn't wake them earlier, when there was a chance to save the ship, she responds;
Shoshone: During my last system upgrade lines two hundred and twenty thousand, two hundred and two to two hundred and sixty eight thousand eight hundred were commented out.
The female character (love interest/systems programmer) knows exactly what those line of code do. They control the hibernation system. In the event of massive system failure, the hibernation pods default to their 365 day routine. Shoshone was unable to wake the crew earlier, and was also unable to countermand the navigation order that has stranded the ship beyond help.
One part of the story involves the two crew trying to find each other. The male lead asks Shoshone to find his girlfriend.
Shoshone: There is a human heat signature in the main access corridor.
That's me, you idiot!
The Matrix (1999)
Name: Agent Smith, Agent Jones, Agent Brown...
Interface: Fully autonomous intelligent programs
Self aware: Yes
Number of Users: N/A
In the world of The Matrix, Keanu Reeves's character Neo discovers that the 'real' world is a computer simulation, and that the intelligent machines that man created have taken over the world. He fights them and wins.
The three agents are not computers in their own rights, rather they are sentient programs that can navigate freely through the simulated world, inhabiting any person who is still hardwired to the Matrix3.
The agents have modelled themselves on FBI/Secret Service agents, they wear brown suits, dark sunglasses and ear pieces, which serve to connect them to some sort of control that keeps them updated about the matrix. They exhibit emotions; Agent Smith feels disgust at having to work in the simulated world.
It is not clear if the agents have a hierarchy, or if they share authority. They can order sentinels (robots, effectively) in the real world to attack targets.
Agent Smith is destroyed by Neo, which creates panic in the other two agents. However, like all good computer systems, the Matrix backs up Agent Smith.
It is suggested in The Matrix: Reloaded that such anomalies as vampires and werewolves in mythology are in fact rogue programs.
Red Planet (2000)
Self aware: Possibly
Number of Users: One
This film had some good computer technology in it.
Oxygen creating algae are sent to Mars to terraform it. A year later and oxygen levels are dropping and the algae is starting to disappear. The spacecraft Mars One is sent with a scientific crew to investigate, but a solar flare damages the ship, forcing the crew (minus the captain) to abandon ship and flee to the Martian surface. Their lander crashes miles from their base, HAB, and one by one they get bumped off by accidents, and then by AIME (see below).
The crew all have portable computing units comprising a canister from which they can pull a sheet of film to varying lengths. The film acts as a display, can take photographs, interpret voice commands and process information. Val Kilmer's character uses his computer to reverse a picture of three mountains, overlay it with the view from HAB, and use geometry to calculate the bearing to HAB.
This is it gentlemen. The day they told us about in high school. When geometry would save our lives.
Mars One also has an on-board computer, called Cecile (female). It can talk to the crew and can even offer advice. When Commander Bowman (the captain, played by Carrie Anne Moss) is trying to put out a fire, the extinguisher canister throws her across the cabin. Cecile reminders her this is a zero-g fire and to brace herself.
AIME is the team's navigation aid on the surface. She is a cat-like robot on loan from the marines. During the crash she is damaged, but only goes 'postal' when the crew find her and try to pull her battery as a power source for themselves. She reverts to 'military mode' and plays a guerrilla warfare attack strategy on them. She seems self aware and willing to defend herself.