Celebrating William Gibson: A Look at Early Cyberspace in Film

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William Gibson will always be recognized as the noir prophet who gave birth to the cyberpunk genre and, with it, introduced the notion of cyberspace to mainstream pop culture. In celebration of his new novel,

— an intellectual adventure story about corporate espionage in the military apparel industry — we’ve rounded up a collection of popular interpretations of the internet in the years after Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk novel

.

The Lawnmower Man (1992) In 1992, most people still didn’t quite understand how computers, much less virtual reality, worked. Lawnmower Man‘s laughably absurd premise involves a scientist (played by Pierce Brosnan) who decides to “cure” Jobe, his mentally handicapped landscaper, of a low IQ with a regimen of hallucinogenic drugs and state-of-the-art VR video games. Once he becomes adept at navigating the new virtual world, Jobe breaks free of the experiment and threatens to take down civilization via his manipulation of the world’s electronic systems. In the meantime, Jobe engages in numerous virtual escapades of sex and violence, placing Lawnmower Man‘s vision of cyberspace somewhere between Tron and ReBoot .

Hackers (1995) Roger Ebert may have aptly described the actual hacking in Hackers as being as realistic as the “archaeology in Indiana Jones,” but the real draw of this gem (other than early performances by Jonny Lee Miller, Angelina Jolie, and Matthew Lillard) is the stylish, outlaw feel the movie gives to the titular cyber-bandits. From what the movie suggests, it appears that being a hacker is more about wearing kick-ass clothes and racing motorcycles than using a keyboard. Keep in mind that few people actually used the internet at this point, so the idea that some snot-nosed kid could hack into your bank account and make a withdrawal to throw an underground pizza party in an abandoned train yard was a legitimate concern. Or a legitimate ambition, if you were the snot-nosed kid.

The Net (1995) While movies like Hackers romanticized the internet as the Wild West of the information age, The Net portrayed it as a booby-trapped labyrinth of shadowy government organizations, where identity theft lay behind every turn. When Angela Bennett (Sandra Bullock) receives a “disk” with a “backdoor” (that’s hacker lingo, class) to an online security system, she is embroiled in a plot that erases her life so completely that her neighbors and former high school classmates forget her face. The whole movie has one over-arching message: the net is dangerous, it’s malicious, and it can do pretty much anything. A welcome warning for anyone tempted to take that Nigerian Prince up on his million-dollar offer.

Johnny Mnemonic (1995) The closest thing to a live-action version of Shadowrun that anyone will ever see, Johnny Mnemonic (loosely based on the Gibson short story) takes place in 2021, at which point Japanese corporations have taken over every aspect of life, turning the world into a sort of bargain-basement, anime-styled Blade Runner. Enter Johnny himself, played by the inimitable Keanu Reeves, a “courier” who downloads information to a hard drive (almost 80 gigabytes) in his brain so it can be safely delivered. When he uses a doubler to expand his HD’s memory to 160 gigabytes, and still overfills his capacity with some super-secret corporate stuff, it’s a race against time before he’s killed by his own brain or ninja assassins. The film is terrible, but it’s notable for the way it envisions the future of the internet: a virtual reality cyberspace navigated by begoggled users in the guise of floating, digital marionettes.

The Matrix (1999) The last decade of action movies (including Matrix: Reloaded and Matrix: Revolutions) has essentially been spent trying to recapture the glory of the first Matrix, when everyone had their minds blown by bullet-time. But The Matrix also perfectly encapsulates the pre-millennium fascination with technology, and its apparently unstoppable march toward conquering our entire lives. According to this film, in the future, the world will exist (spoiler alert!) in a giant computer, and we will all be hacker-gods, bending reality to our will. Everyone will wear black leather and listen to techno in really dark clubs. It will never stop raining, and everything will be vaguely greenish in hue. Essentially, it’s every goth kid’s wet dream.

Swordfish (2001) This is the hacking movie that gets made by someone who’s never even seen a computer. A renegade counter-terrorist (John Travolta) has to recruit the services of the World’s Greatest Hacker (Hugh Jackman — whose rugged good looks and manly physique could only be the result of 72-hour coding sessions) for one last job. What the job actually is doesn’t matter in the slightest. The key here is the movie’s laughable tagline: “Log on. Hack in. Go anywhere. Steal everything.” In movies like Swordfish, every hacker is a digital-age Fantomas: suave, sexy, and virtually omnipotent.