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Technology In Movies
Rating the Computers, Robots, Programmers, Droids, Hackers and A.I.s

Posted by Charlie Recksieck on 2019-08-08
I've been meaning to write this article since we started the blog. Just some summer fun, rating movies (and tv) based on how well they featured and dealt with computers, robots, machines and artificial intelligence. I am sticking only with movies that I've seen or remember (sorry, Hackers and Terminator: Rise Of The Machines). There is no real, logical way to do these silly ratings. That said, I used a 0 to 10 scale for the following 5 criteria:

* Social Impact - Mostly the movie's popularity and how it affected tech knowledge in the culture.
* Portrayal - Did the computer look realistic? Or did the actor portraying the A.I. sound convincing?
* Science Fact - Believability of the environment or ideas
* As Plot Device - Was the tech a big driver in the plot of the movie or was it incidental?
* Drama or Comedy Factor - If a comedy, was the computer funny? If drama, did it have an impact?

With no further ado, here we go

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Movies Using Computers
War Games - 34 (Social Impact: 7, Computer Portrayal: 5, Science Fact: 6, As Plot Device: 9, Drama: 7)
Andromeda Strain - 27 (Social Impact: 4, Computer Portrayal: 5, Science Fact: 8, As Plot Device: 6, Drama: 4)
Pi - 28 (Social Impact: 2, Computer Portrayal: 9, Science Fact: 9, As Plot Device: 4, Drama: 4)
Jurassic Park - 39 (Social Impact: 8, Computer Portrayal: 9, Science Fact: 7, As Plot Device: 7, Drama: 8)
You've Got Mail - 41 (Social Impact: 7, Computer Portrayal: 10, Science Fact: 10, As Plot Device: 8, Comedy: 6)
War Games was pretty iconic (I can still hear the monotone reading of "How About A Game?") but the 2nd half of the movie devolves into a standard chase movie. The Andromeda Strain is one of two Michael Crichton concepts here in this group, the science is fantastic but the computer part of it is pretty dated and the humans are doing the heavy lifting. Pi is a great movie, but more about a brilliant mind trying to stay sane than about the computer which spits out the troubling number. Jurassic Park is a huge movie and actually one I consider one of the best pieces of entertainment Hollywood has ever made. The evaluation here is more about the computer and software parts (with Newman shutting down the park security system) than the DNA technology. But the biggest surprise here from my goofy categories and ratings is that it's making me consider that You've Got Mail is one of the great movies about technology and people's relationship to it. The movie would not be possible with any other plot device, its portrayal of how we use our laptops is spot on, and while we don't exactly chat like this anymore, we did at the time. Perhaps the most realistic tech moment for me though is when Tom Hanks is reconsidering and editing before pressing send and instead of highlighting with the mouse and deleting, he hits the backspace key about 40 times ... I can relate.


Movies Covering Computer History
The Imitation Game - 34 (Social Impact: 6, Computer Portrayal: 8, Science Fact: 7, As Plot Device: 7, Drama: 6)
Steve Jobs - 38 (Social Impact: 8, Computer Portrayal: 10, Science Fact: 9, As Plot Device: 5, Drama: 6)
The Social Network - 37 (Social Impact: 10, Computer Portrayal: 10, Science Fact: 8, As Plot Device: 4, Drama: 5)
I'm really glad that The Imitation Game got made to make us aware of Alan Turing's contributions to society, but they really took some dramatic liberties with the reality of the codebreaking project and machines - plus, the movie is also about Turing's emotions as much as really being about the technology. The two Aaron Sorkin written movies are terrific about two of the giants of 21st century tech, Apple and Facebook. Yes, we shouldn't accept these as reality (especially Steve Jobs where these conversations never happened) but they really show what it was like to work for these two companies. And The Social Network might actually be the best movie of the past 10 years.


Old School Robots
Rocky IV - 6 (Social Impact: 4, Robot Acting: 2, Science Fact: 0, As Plot Device: 0, Comedy: 0)
Lost In Space - 27 (Social Impact: 8, Robot Acting: 5, Science Fact: 1, As Plot Device: 8, Comedy: 6)
WALL-E - 39 (Social Impact: 8, Robot Acting: 8, Science Fact: 4, As Plot Device: 10, Drama: 9)
Short Circuit - 21 (Social Impact: 3, Robot Acting: 2, Science Fact: 5, As Plot Device: 8, Comedy: 3)
Maybe it's unfair of me to bring Rocky IV into this. The robot maid that the well-to-do version of Rocky buys for his family is not an integral part of Rocky IV. But I bring it up to point out that it really does seem that Paulie is actively engaged in a relationship with the robot maid. Lost In Space is iconic 60's cheesy sci-fi with Robby The Robot from Forbidden Planet finding regular work on a tv series. Yet, he and Dr. Smith as a comedy duo was the engine of the only good moments of a hugely popular show (ask your grandparents). I normally don't love Pixar or animated movies but if WALL-E doesn't actually move you then you're emotionally dead. Short Circuit (Ally Sheedy's 2nd appearance on this list) had its day in the 80s despite being racist. The comedy from the robots was awful, but I'm giving some "Science Fact" cred to the portrayal of the robotics lab. I was thinking of including Chappie but just use the Short Circuit ratings, it's the same movie.


Ridiculous Machines
George Michael Sports Machine - 13 (Social Impact: 2, Computer Portrayal: 0, Science Fact: 4, As Plot Device: 1, As Sportscaster: 6)
Batman (tv series) - 23 (Social Impact: 8, Computer Portrayal: 3, Science Fact: 0, As Plot Device: 2, Comedy: 10)
Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory - 23 (Social Impact: 9, Computer Portrayal: 6, Science Fact: 1, As Plot Device: 4, Drama: 3)
Time After Time - 30 (Social Impact: 4, Computer Portrayal: 5, Science Fact: 2, As Plot Device: 10, Drama: 9)
Speaking of "ask your grandparents", go Google the "George Michael Sports Machine". It was a sports highlight show out of the Washington DC area that got picked up nationally even though they spent 15 of their 30 minutes on the Washington Redskins (or only 10 if it was NFL off season). When the confusingly-named George Michael pressed the giant button to roll a clip, it was always great unintentional comedy. Batman was always incredibly ironic, satirical and tongue-in-cheek but the funny, specific names labeled on the "Bat-Computer" from episode were comedy gold. There was a ton of fanciful technology in Willy Wonka, none of it realistic, but it's a big driver in the movie and I have to give points to the supercomputer which looked exactly like the tape-drive monstrosities also found in IBM at the time (1971). I'm including the Malcom McDowell, Mary Steenburgen 1979 film Time After Time remixing H.G. Wells, Jack The Ripper and The Time Machine. Not very representative tech (although a time machine doesn’t exist, so ...) but points for looking like Victorian-era technology.


TV/Movies About Software Design
Silicon Valley - 40 (Social Impact: 4, Computer Portrayal: 8, Science Fact: 10, As Plot Device: 10, Comedy: 8)
Tron - 28 (Social Impact: 6, Computer Portrayal: 3, Science Fact: 5, As Plot Device: 9, Drama: 5)
Office Space - 35 (Social Impact: 9, Computer Portrayal: 7, Science Fact: 9, As Plot Device: 4, Comedy: 6)
Antitrust - 6 (Social Impact: 0, Computer Portrayal: 2, Science Fact: 1, As Plot Device: 2, Drama: 1)
I've got a good friend who's a player in Silicon Valley (the place, not the series) who lets trivial differences from the real world spoil his enjoyment of the series. Nevertheless, Silicon Valley the series is an alltimer about the workplace, typical attitudes of software designers at all levels, and almost all of the comedy comes directly out of plausible, software-driven premises. I'm a fan. As for Tron, if you've seen the original, you're probably scoffing at the interior fantasy world of the computer. Keep in mind, though, the portrayal of the offices and practices of ENCOM which actually have a lot to say about the corporate software environment, I'm dead serious. Office Space only has a low number in that it's less specifically about software business than it is about work in general. I have a hard time believing anybody is reading this article and has not seen it, but if so, then please watch Office Space ASAP. Antitrust, even more than Disclosure, is probably my least favorite movie in this post - cynical, stupid, unrealistic and undramatic.


Movies Involving Hacking
Sneakers - 32 (Social Impact: 3, Computer Portrayal: 8, Science Fact: 8, As Plot Device: 7, Drama: 6)
The Net - 13 (Social Impact: 1, Computer Portrayal: 2, Science Fact: 5, As Plot Device: 3, Drama: 2)
Ocean's Eleven - 34 (Social Impact: 8, Computer Portrayal: 9, Science Fact: 5, As Plot Device: 7, Comedy: 5)
Superman III - 16 (Social Impact: 4, Computer Portrayal: 4, Science Fact: 3, As Plot Device: 3, Comedy: 1)
Sneakers is actually a sneaky-good movie (see what I did there). It's really a caper movie with actors too good for the material; even so, they kind of nail the tech with cutting-edge encryption ideas and effective, low-tech methods of pointing a camera to a guy typing a password. (Apologies for not listing Hackers, I never saw it.) The Net, like too many computer-based thrillers, devolves into basic chase scenes. Their tech ideas were better than you might think, but the graphics we see on the monitors are laughable. Computers are always a big part of any modern caper movie (also not listed: Fast & Furious franchise), and Ocean's Eleven gets away with a lot because the film is so good and just moves so fast. All of the devices looked good, although implausible; the gadgets actually drove more of the film than I remember, now that I think about it. Superman III is famous for the bank micro-cent rounding (aka "salami slicing") plot idea that Office Space openly salutes. I'm torn about this because the early part where Richard Pryor is an employed computer programmer is really pretty good, tech-wise. But then even after the goofy recipe to make Evil Superman, the machine/robot stuff at the end is a gutterball.


TV/Movies About Surveillance
Snowden - 33 (Social Impact: 5, Computer Portrayal: 7, Science Fact: 9, As Plot Device: 6, Drama: 6)
Citizenfour - 38 (Social Impact: 5, Computer Portrayal: 10, Science Fact: 10, As Plot Device: 7, Documentary: 6)
Enemy Of The State - 32 (Social Impact: 7, Computer Portrayal: 6, Science Fact: 5, As Plot Device: 9, Drama: 8)
CSI - 13 (Social Impact: 2, Computer Portrayal: 2, Science Fact: 2, As Plot Device: 5, Drama: 2)
24 - 20 (Social Impact: 7, Computer Portrayal: 2, Science Fact: 2, As Plot Device: 4, Drama: 5)
Both Oliver Stone's Snowden and the Oscar-winning doc citizenfour have an advantage in these ratings about realism (especially citizenfour). Ultimately, though both films scratch the surface of surveillance and encryption, they end up being more about the captivating story of Snowden's personal decisions. Despite some on-monitor nonsense in the NSA scenes, Enemy Of The State makes for a great thriller and introduced plenty to the public about the levels of surveillance the U.S. government can employ towards its citizens. Enemy Of The State at its worst never approaches the level of tech, magic tracking computer nonsense of both CSI and 24.


Glorified Amazon Echos
Iron Man - 28 (Social Impact: 9, Robot Acting: 8, Science Fact: 6, As Plot Device: 2, Drama: 3)
Moon - 28 (Social Impact: 2, Robot Acting: 10, Science Fact: 7, As Plot Device: 6, Drama: 3)
In fairness, J.A.R.V.I.S. really isn't the star of the Iron-Man series (we are ignoring the merits and tech of the suit). As for Moon, it's a shame that Kevin Spacey is the voice of the onboard A.I. which retroactively hurts the movie, because it's a good one. Personally, I feel like the filmmakers really nailed it for a computer that you could argue logically with, but didn't have phony anthropomorphized personality traits.


Androids
Star Wars - 37 (Social Impact: 10, Robot Acting: 9, Science Fact: 5, As Plot Device: 6, Comedy: 7)
Blade Runner - 43 (Social Impact: 8, Robot Acting: 9, Science Fact: 7, As Plot Device: 9, Drama: 10)
Alien - 38 (Social Impact: 8, Robot Acting: 8, Science Fact: 8, As Plot Device: 7, Drama: 7)
A.I. - 36 (Social Impact: 5, Robot Acting: 7, Science Fact: 6, As Plot Device: 10, Drama: 8)
Heartbeeps - 9 (Social Impact: 0, Robot Acting: 0, Science Fact: 0, As Plot Device: 8, Comedy: 1)
Westworld (movie) - 30 (Social Impact: 5, Robot Acting: 4, Science Fact: 3, As Plot Device: 9, Drama: 9)
Westworld (tv series) - 37 (Social Impact: 6, Robot Acting: 9, Science Fact: 4, As Plot Device: 9, Drama: 9)
When you hear "droids" you have to think Star Wars. It's cultural impact was so huge and C-3PO and R2D2 were huge phenomenon's themselves in the 70s. If I can pour water on it, their schtick gets pretty old, pretty quickly (at least as an adult). Bonus points to anybody in your life who refers to them as "Threepio" and "Artoo" with the shorthand. Blade Runner is our unofficial android movie champion. They nailed some real-life innovations, it's a great movie, and driven by what-is-consciousness ideas that will age well as the singularity nears - and all of the action is driven by the androids' decisions. Alien is rock-solid and even though it doesn't seem primarily like an android movie, it's really Ash who drives the decisions that move the plot. A.I. is a beautiful mess from Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg; it grapples with these same android mindfulness issues, but it’s clearly a couple of notches below Blade Runner. Heartbeeps is something I expect none of you to know, but if you want to Google a trainwreck that stars Andy Kaufman and also Jerry Garcia(?!), then look this one up. Westworld, the movie was a great concept, but moviemaking wasn't ready to do it justice. The more recent HBO series really gets into the ethical, social and technological issues we are going to contend with in the coming decades (although Season 2 was a big dip in quality from Season 1).


Movies About Artificial Intelligence
Star Trek I: The Motion Picture - 20 (Social Impact: 4, A.I. Acting: 1, Science Fact: 2, As Plot Device: 7, Drama: 6)
2001: A Space Odyssey - 49 (Social Impact: 10, A.I. Acting: 10, Science Fact: 9, As Plot Device: 10, Drama: 10)
2010 - 31 (Social Impact: 3, A.I. Acting: 10, Science Fact: 8, As Plot Device: 5, Drama: 5)
Terminator Series - 40 (Social Impact: 8, A.I. Acting: 7, Science Fact: 6, As Plot Device: 8, Drama: 9)
Her - 42 (Social Impact: 4, A.I. Acting: 10, Science Fact: 10, As Plot Device: 9, Drama: 9)
The Matrix - 38 (Social Impact: 10, A.I. Acting: 7, Science Fact: 5, As Plot Device: 8, Drama: 8)
The first Star Trek movie had some great ideas and ended up with a great plot twist about a self-aware machine, but they said the word "V-Ger" about 30 times too many for me to respect this movie. Despite still not quite knowing what the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey is about at all, this is the gold standard: prescient on lots of tech, spectacularly filmed, scientific limitations drove the plot, and HAL 9000 is quite possibly one of the most interesting villains in film history. Now stay with me, 2010 is completely underrated in further dealing with HAL's psyche as shown when Bob Balaban's character gets to the bottom of HAL's conflicting instructions that caused his "mental" breakdown in the original. Terminator 2 is one of the best action movies off all time (and the original Terminator is a very good one) with androids both organic and liquid driving the action; but T2 gets way deeper (with some time-travel gordian knots thrown in there) about the SkyNet intelligence. If 2013's Her was seen by more people, it would have a bigger score in my book. Basically a romance between a sad guy and his souped-up Siri named Samantha. It goes so deep into what could be seen as a logical progression for the AI's of the world, almost the happier answer to the future than The Matrix. As for The Matrix itself, the sequels hurt the mythology - but this was a late-90s gamechanger which is still blowing 16 year olds' minds about AI and reality; it only suffers in comparison to these other greats when it comes to the singularity.


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There you have it. Yet another pop culture tech article which rates You've Got Mail as one of the 5 best tech movies of all time.