Seven Films That (Mostly) Get IT and Computers Right
As I sit down in my warm, comfortable suburban home to watch The Matrix for the 56th time, I am reminded that it is essentially a fantasy story that calls magic technology. It's a great movie, as long as you're willing to swallow all of the slick handwavium that injects things like human-computer "brainjack" interfaces and human bodies functioning as (spoiler alert!) high-output electric generators into a generically futuristic science-fiction setting.
It's a workable (even enjoyable) formula, but it's also not the only way to go. There are plenty of fun movies out there that color fairly reasonably within the lines of actual information technology (IT), or speculate within generally acceptable parameters of current computer science. The best tech-centric moves shed light on actual tech topics or concepts, making dense subject matter more approachable and comprehensible.
For the potential enjoyment of those who are rooted in IT but also have an insatiable appetite for cinema, here are six favorite films that do a pretty good job of mixing the two.
First on my list is Ex Machina (2015), written and directed by Alex Garland. The basic scenario — in which a genius-level programmer designs and builds a lifelike robot inhabited by a learning-enabled AI — is far-fetched, but less so now even than it was just a few years ago. AI-driven machines are definitely a technological leap that we've made a lot of recent progress toward completing.
Ex Machina wonders what we will do with such sentient machines. Will we use and treat them like, well, machines, essentially operating them for our benefit until they break? What does it mean for our conception of "human rights" when a non-breathing machine has feelings? Who has the right to create a thinking entity and then direct its every action to further our own desires? Does such an entity have a "soul," or a capital-G God?
The heart of Ex Machina is a sort of next-level "Turing test" to determine the full potential of humanoid robot Ava. No matter far in the future you believe an Ava-like construct is, Garland and his cast have framed a conversation about ethical questions that are becoming less theoretical by the day. Overall, I give the movie high marks for plausible speculation and rate it a "must watch" for the IT geek in all of us.
Minority Report (2002) is next up on my list. Tom Cruise is one of my favorite actors, but that's not the only reason this remains one of my favorite films. Scientists are gaining ground in the ability of computers to register and interpret brain wave activity. Mix that with our ever-increasing capacity to analyze and assess massive data sets, and we already have the potential to make rudimentary predictions about human behavior. Refine that process enough and we don't even need the movie's human "precogs."
Would free will be a thing if computers could accurately predict your future actions based on your past behavior and present brain function? What if you KNEW I was going to do something? Would I still be guilty of doing it even if you intervened and prevented me from taking action?
The most chilling "true thing" in this movie is the ads targeted to people based on their visual activity. We already collect and store millions of data points tied to individuals. Imagine if you could get information about a person's everyday life by "reading" their DNA or mental stimuli? The touchscreen interfaces that you see here don't even seem futuristic now: As if I needed another reason for Tom Cruise to be my hero.
I Robot (2004) is an amazing movie in addition hitting all the right buttons on future IT. A sentient robot following a directive to take care of humans misinterprets its orders to mean that it must confine humans and lock them up for their own good. My favorite line is when the robot hero asks an AI if it knows why it was created. It says it knows all right: to kill the AI.
I've always thought this would be the most telling indication of sentience in an AI — to know why it was created. It makes one think: To know why you were created, that creation isn't random and that you have a purpose, may be the ultimate pinnacle of what it means to be human.
The Social Network (2010), rooted as it is in actual events, may be among the most accurate movies about IT ever made. The film's real story, of course, is about human greed and the race to be the best at all costs. Still, it would be hard to top this one for depicting certain aspects of IT and software development authentically.
An old one, but a good one, is the 1992 thriller Sneakers. It includes a fun look at the prehistory of white hat hacking, as well as a spot-on depiction of social engineering.
Social engineering, incidentally, is the art of manipulating people into revealing confidential information. The types of information pursued in this manner can vary, but when individuals are targeted the criminals are usually trying to get at passwords, financial information, or network access. Knowing who and what to trust is essential to good cybersecurity. Ask any security professional, and he or she will tell you that the weakest link in organizational security is always the human element.
You have to go almost as far back in time to find The Truman Show (1998), which most people probably would not think of as being a movie about technology. The setup is very Matrix-like in its depiction of a man living a "normal" life in a world he only thinks is real.
In The Truman Show, the Powers That Be use technology to trap one individual in a specific reality. Doesn't everyone do something similar from time to time? Don't we watch movies to escape reality and fantasize about alternate realities? You might not have the ability construct an alternate physical reality for yourself, but technology that distracts and entertains allows everyone to withdraw from actual human contact enough to at least sort of become the star of their own mini-Truman Show.
Next up is Office Space (1999). A few quirky men living out their lives in a dead-end office environment. They can't break free and the boring reality of their mundane jobs quickly becomes comedic for viewers. The story takes a turn when the main protagonist goes to a hypnotist and, in a quirk of fate, the hypnotist dies while the main character is still under hypnosis. He never "wakes up," so he spends the rest of the movie not going to work, fishing — being totally relaxed.
The IT angle, apart from gags about malfunctioning office equipment, arises as the hero's friends are about to be fired. He warns them and together they hatch a plan to collect money from rounding errors. This is also key to the plot of 1983's mostly forgotten Superman III — which one of the characters points out. It not only works, but it turns out that this is a legit method of making money on the stock market (read Flash Boys), though NOT legit way of making money in banking.
(The fun really gets going when they try to give the money back. Office Space is a movie I definitely recommend watching.)
Those are my top films that don't make me physically ill with ridiculous depictions of computers and technology. On a related tangent, here's a quick blitz through some films and television shows that dared to dream the future of devices and gadgets.
The Back to the Future movies aren't really about science or technology, but they did capture some fun ideas — from pump-action hi-top sneakers to wearable technology — that have since been realized in the real world. Airplane II (1982) features body scanning machines that are a dead ringer for some of the tech used in modern airports.
Total Recall had self-driving cars in 1990. Driverless Ubers, meanwhile, are generating bad press today, but could be all over the road in 10 years. I sincerely doubt that my own grandbabies will drive anywhere, and who knows what's in story for their grandbabies.
2001: A Space Odyssey, from all the way back in 1968, has a video phone — or maybe it's just internet video messaging like Skype or Gchat. There are so many precursors in cinematic fiction to the modern Roomba that it almost couldn't help but be invented sooner or later, while the digital billboards in Blade Runner (1982) wouldn't even seem futuristic to anyone who been through Time Square.
And is your smartphone or tablet really anything other than the great-grandchild of the tricorder from Star Trek? I've seen plenty of laughable IT and (still) preposterous future tech at the movies, so it's only fair to give out a few deserved pats on the back. Enjoy these movies and ask yourself: What are you watching now that doesn't totally misunderstand IT?