Contemporary or Future
This entry is part of the Computers in Science Fiction series. This guide entry covers only movies set in contemporary times.
Computers shown in contemporary movies tend to have exaggerated (or impossible) cababilities. 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, make trains crash or cause planes to 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. Some film makers however make the mistake of tying down their technology, by using real terms, which makes the films date badly, see Mission Impossible.
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.
Ultimately, these computer movies are bout 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.
War Games (1983)
This cult film starring 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. It is certainly true for this researcher.
Basic plot: David (Broderick) is tring 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 defense 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?"
WOPR: "WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?"
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 "Naughts and Crosses." Jennifer is asked by WOPR's creator, Stephen Falken, if
she still played it.
Falken: "Why not?"
Jennifer: "'Cos it's pointless, there's no way to win."
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.
WOPR: "STRANGE GAME. THE ONLY WINNING MOVE IS NOT TO PLAY.
HOW ABOUT A NICE GAME OF CHESS?"
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, climing up the outside of a snow covered building and planting a bug. The bug was attached to one of the computer's ports and transmitted 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 thier life makes it easier to guess.
The second part is when Harrison Ford's character, Jack Ryan, has hacked into his colleagues 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.
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 Net (1995)
Basic plot: Sandra Bullock discovers a conspiracy to hack into key government and bank main frame 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 the 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 incompentence on the part of the system administrators. As of writing the last 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.
When the hacker character describes what he needs to complete the mission, he is using the worse 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 slighty, well, cheesy. Computer science graduates actually cringed at this point.
The part with Tom Cruise hanging in the main frame 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!
Independance Day (1996)
The main computer part of this film 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 main frame computer in Red Star's headquarters that the Angels had to break into. Cameron Diaz again 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.
Hugh Jackman plays a hacker called Stanley. He is hired by John Travolta to hack into a central bank system and transfer illegelly held monnies 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).
Sam's use of passwords always raises some eyebrows. They always follow the format of: XXX-XXXX. The Xs do not obscure characters, the was the modern * does. His password really is seven Xs and a hyphen.
South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. (1999)
As with everything in Southpark, there is a great paraody 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, at most, a dozen keys before getting round the Internet block.