Hollywood's Year of the Computer

Last year [1995] in Hollywood was the year of the computer. Two dozen motion pictures about computers, such as Johnny Mnemonic, The Net, Hackers, Virtuosity, and Strange Days, saw development in 1995.

Why the current cybercraze? Movies reflect the interests of our culture. Movies are an art form--and a form of making money. The deal makers choose stories they feel will make big bucks. After Hollywood noted the explosive growth of personal computers and the Internet in the 1990s, cybercinema was inevitable.

I'll review some of these movies by starting at the bottom of the barrel. Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace was released during the New Year's holiday season and didn't survive longer than party confetti. It should have been titled Lawnmower Man 2: Wretched Beyond Words. The first Lawnmower Man movie, which this sequel was loosely based upon, was about a retarded man who, through VR teaching and smart drugs, becomes a hyperintelligent, telekinetic, and evil computer god. It was a mediocre movie but now seems like a classic in comparison to its sequel.

At the video store don't pick up the sequel. If you didn't see the original, you'll be clueless during the second. If you saw the original, leave well enough alone.

Somewhat better are Johnny Mnemonic, Hackers, and Strange Days. They have some redeeming qualities but are full of unlikable protagonists and the seamy side of cyberculture. Catch them on video only if you are a diehard science-fiction fan or a computer geek.

In Johnny Mnemonic, Keanu Reeves plays a courier of vital black-market data. To transport the data he has a computer chip where part of his brain should be. Since a silicon brain implant would explain a lot about Reeves' acting ability in all his movies, I'm tempted to say this is a true story. However, this movie is based on a 1981 short story by William Gibson--the writer who coined the term "cyberspace" in his best-selling 1984 novel Neuromancer.

In Strange Days, ultimate virtual reality is someone else's reality. Using computerized Walkmen that record and play back thoughts and sensations, voyeurs relive parts of other people's lives--sometimes with deadly results. Unfortunately for the movie audience, the VR clips seen are generally of murder and rape. Where is the pleasure in such voyeurism?

In Hackers, the anarchistic teenage protagonists accidentally stumble into a cyber-criminal conspiracy, get themselves deeply into trouble, but manage to outwit the nefarious evil-doers. Unfortunately, the protagonists are so unlikable, the viewer roots for them only because of the utter sliminess of the villain.

The Net has a similar hacker-versus-evil theme, but is much more enjoyable to watch. The current every(wo)man darling, Sandra Bullock, plays a brainy (much acting skill was needed there) computer consultant who stumbles upon a criminal plot, finds her life threatened, and her identity disappearing. Computers become her greatest threat and her only hope.

With all the buzz about virtual reality, exactly where does virtual end and reality begin? In the underrated thriller Virtuosity simulations turned deadly when virtual reality becomes too real. SID 6.7, a serial-killer simulation program, comes to life as a nearly invincible robot and begins a spree of violence. Only the former cop (Denzel Washington) who battled the killer in VR can stop him in real life.

Perhaps the best computer-related movie of 1995 was not about computers, but it was created by computers. Toy Story was the first full-length motion picture composed entirely of computer graphics. (For you techies, the 78 minutes of screen time consumed a thousand gigabytes of storage.) It's an inventive and funny buddy movie about a toy wooden cowboy (the voice of Tom Hanks) and a plastic "Space Ranger" (voice of Tim Allen). It's also the only movie mentioned here that would be suitable and enjoyable by the whole family.

For the best cybercinema, however, you'll have to leave the new releases section of the video store and look for some older classics. For example, the best "hacker" movies are Wargames (1983) and Sneakers (1992). In Wargames, Matthew Broderick, a hacker in search of a great computer game, accesses a defense computer, plays the global thermonuclear war game, and nearly launches a real World War III. In Sneakers, Robert Redford, a former hacker with an assumed identity as a security consultant, is forced to steal the ultimate code-breaker that can decipher any secret.

The all time best and most philosophical cyber movies are 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the underrated Colossus: The Forbin Project (1969). In 2001, HAL, the melodiously voiced computer watching over a spacecraft heading toward Jupiter, suffers a digital breakdown and kills most of the crew before being shut down. In the sequel 2010: Odyssey 2 (1984), the reactivated HAL attains computing immortality.

In Colossus, fears of computers "taking over" were epitomized in this bleak but fascinating look at a supercomputer constructed to control the nation's defense system. After being given command of America's missiles, Colossus develops self-awareness and ambitions to rule the world.

Ruling the world always was Hollywood's ambition, but Colossus was more successful. Perhaps if Colossus had concentrated on making movies instead of missiles, films about computers would be better today.

Copyright 1996 Mark D. Stucky.
Originally published in the May 1996 issue of Integra.

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