“Our world interconnected. Our systems interconnected. Our identities vulnerable.” So goes the on-screen tagline in the trailer for Michael Mann’s new cyber-thriller Blackhat, and as the word “identities” is replaced by “security,” “homes,” “secrets,” “money,” “privacy,” “safety,” and the like — along with a giant close-up of a cable plugging in — it’s easy to chuckle along with Hollywood doing one more fear-mongering thriller about hackers taking down sacred cows and exposing private information, as if such a thing were actually plausible. (Oh, wait.) Yes, the Sony hack suddenly made Blackhat’s potentially worrisome January release suddenly timely and relevant, but it’s part of a long tradition of films that looked at the capabilities of computers, artificial intelligence, and the Internet — and shit their collective pants over it.
1968: 2001: A Space Odyssey
Cinema’s most famous computer is also (probably not coincidentally!) its most menacing. Computers were still room-sized behemoths when Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick devised HAL 9000, the on-board computer that operates the Discovery One, but the pattern was set: these machines will ingratiate themselves with their speed, convenience, and reliability, only to totally murder you the first chance they get.
1970: Colossus: The Forbin Project
This mostly forgotten sci-fi thriller from director Joseph Sargent (The Taking of Pelham 123) took the “villainous computer” premise of 2001 one step further: it concerns a supercomputer called Colossus that becomes sentient and attempts nothing less ambitious than taking over the world, and bringing it to the brink of destruction. You will see a bit more of this in years to come…
1983: WarGames, Superman III
The “evil computer” trope merged with the then-revolutionary notion of computers communicating with each other via telephone (crazy, right?) in John Badham’s terrific thriller WarGames, in which a high school hacker (Matthew Broderick) accidentally engages NORAD’s supercomputer for what he thinks is a harmless game of something called “Global Thermonuclear War.” Whoops. That same year, Richard Pryor played a hacking prodigy in the third Superman movie, who moves from picking up partial-pennies to fatten his own paycheck (and inspiring Office Space) to creating a supercomputer that controls the weather. In 1983, both of these notions seemed highly plausible!
1984-1991: The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Skynet, the artificial intelligence system that becomes sentient and attempts to destroy humanity — launching the central conflict that fuels the series — is a minor element (a MacGuffin, really) in the first Terminator movie, while taking more of a focal role in the 1991 sequel. In the years since, it’s become the go-to reference for a very specific kind of paranoid Luddite thinking: stay off the grid, because the computers are going to take over everything, and then they come for us.
Phil Alden Robinson directed and co-wrote (with producers Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes) this 1992 techno-comedy, the fanciful tale of a group of security experts/hackers who are hired by the NSA to recover a device that allows them to break all known encryption systems and spy on other agencies and American citizens. So you see, these are all incredibly fanciful works of total fiction, oh hang on.
1993: Ghost in the Machine
If 2001 and Colussus imagined the havoc that could be wreaked by a computer thinking (and destroying) on its own, Ghost in the Machine took that idea one step further: what if an already-formed (and already-evil) human mind somehow got into a computer? Rachel Talalay’s low-rent horror thriller concerned a serial killer who has the misfortune of getting an MRI during an electrical storm (let’s not dwell on the science here) and finds himself inside a network-based computer — where he continues his killing spree via a rather comical series of electronics-based deaths. There are, for fans of this kind of thing, a lot of appliances involved.
1995: The Net, Hackers, Virtuosity
By the mid-‘90s, Internet usage was on the rise, home computers were selling like crazy, and every house had a stack of AOL installation CDs. So, as usual, Hollywood responded with a series of worst-case scenarios, which all landed in theaters over three consecutive months in 1995. Irwin Winkler’s The Net explained how a simple Everywoman (Sandra Bullock) who dared use the Internet could have her credit cards wiped, her identity stolen, and her life ruined. Hackers showed the kind of evil geniuses capable of such handiwork, though in true Hollywood style, they looked like Angelina Jolie and Jonny Lee Miller. And the unfortunate Denzel Washington/Russell Crowe team-up Virtuosity asked: what if a computer could not only develop its own eeeeeevil mind, but could then manifest itself into a physical form? (The answer: It’d probably result in reeeeallly badly-dated CGI.)
The critical and financial failure of Virtuosity apparently didn’t stop director John Bruno from helming this relentlessly goofy horror thriller, in which the electrical energy of an alien life form boards a research ship, scans its computers, learns to kill humans, and then transforms the crew into killer cyborgs. The brave human crew (led by poor Jamie Lee Curtis, who deserves better) must communicate with the enemy via computer, even though it considers the human race — wait for it — a “virus” that must be eliminated.
2007: Live Free or Die Hard
Around the same time as Virus’s release, the human race as a whole was having a collective freakout over the “Y2K bug,” a programming glitch wherein the changing of the year from 1999 to 2000 would spark mass confusion among computer systems using two-digit years, prompting mass chaos, destruction, death, etc. It didn’t come to pass, obviously, but several years later, the Die Hard series reignited (unfortunately, it turned out) with Bruce Willis’ John McClane taking on a coordinated cyber-attack targeting power and transportation grids, the stock market, and the NSA, aimed at pretty much burning down the system. But, of course, their computer skills are no match for Willis’ brawn, good luck, and smirky wisecracks.
2014: Men, Women, & Children
But forget crashing the information systems and starting a world-wide panic — did you know that you can use the Internet to watch weird porn and cheat on your spouse and play violent video games and, most importantly, disconnect from each other? This was the stern warning from Jason Reitman’s latest, which The A.V. Club’s Mike D’Angelo wrote “depicts the Internet with an alarmist hysteria capable of making Reefer Madness look levelheaded by comparison.” It certainly seems safe to assume that Blackhat’s Michael Mann is a bit more tuned in to the actual workings and implications of this world, but if we’ve learned one thing (with a couple of minor exceptions) over the past half-century or so, it’s that mainstream cinema’s interactions with technology are typically less about reality than paranoia and fear.