Escapist fair works best when it doesn’t make tech and computing look dumb. These films fit the bill
It’s practically a universal law that people in certain jobs don’t watch movies or TV shows about their own professions. Cops don’t watch cop shows. Nurses avoid hospital-based dramas. I imagine sanitation workers don’t watch film about garbage collection.
Why? Watching something you’re so familiar with is painful when they get it wrong. It pulls you right out of the story.
I’d say it might be even worse for people who work in technology, but these days, we all work in or around technology. Anyone who watches a CSI-type show and doesn’t roll their eyes at the old “enhance that image!” line to read the obscure license plate has never seen a pixelated JPEG image.
Yet it remains very hard to find films where the technology isn’t instantly cringe-inducing, even to laymen. So I asked PCMag staffers which films from the last 50+ years got technology right enough to look prescient, or just didn’t completely mess it up.
Below are 10 that jumped out, minus any historical reenactments since they have the benefit of hindsight (sorry, Apollo 13). Let us know in the comments if we missed any of your favorites.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The list of things that Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke got right in 2001—a year before we even landed on the moon—is long and dazzling. Entire books have been written about it. They had the essentials of laptops and cell phones, near perfect looks at life in space, and perhaps closest to home, the first digital voice assistant. HAL 9000 went homicidal in a way we haven’t seen from Alexa or Siri…yet.
Logan’s Run (1976)
Young people in togas literally flying around a disco ball probably isn’t prescient tech (if you disagree, we want an invite to the raves you’re attending). However, there are one or two things to watch for in this classic 1970s sci-fi action flick. As our senior analyst Sascha Segan said, the film “invented Tinder, my favorite random pop culture tech prediction ever.” The clip above proves it. Also, there are some pretty sweet-looking monorails in the cityscape that are a nice mix of what you get at Disney and the potential of a future Hyperloop.
This movie is 35 years old, but its premise is as terrifying now as it was then: what if a hacker “accidentally” set off a thermonuclear war? Matthew Broderick is a precocious teen who thinks he’s hacking a game developer’s database for early access to new titles, but he’s actually breaching US military systems. Oops.
Check out what Broderick’s character had in his room: an original IMSAI 8080 PC kit with a “massive” 17-inch black-and-white monitor. It talked to other computers over a 1200-baud modem, using an acoustic coupler to connect via an actual desktop phone, since there was no way to plug into it. That was just the stuff to fake the look of a high-tech kid’s bedroom in 1983; the graphics for NORAD were all faked using a classic HP 9845C, typically used for science and engineering work, plus an Apple II. (h/t ITWorld for the deets.)
Sneakers debuted as the digital revolution was ramping up, and the movie embraced it all, from phone phreaks to white hat hackers. Even the initial marketing campaign for the film included a floppy disc with some encrypted data on it. A consultant on the film was a professor who helped create RSA encryption, and the film’s code-breaking MacGuffin reads like modern-day cryptography, personifying exactly what the NSA wants: a key to break into everything. It could happen.
The Truman Show (1998)
Screenwriter Andrew Niccol wrote dystopic flicks like Gattaca, In Time, and Simone (aka S1MONE), which featured actors getting replaced by CGI. But few hold a candle to his 1998 hit The Truman Show. It follows the life of a man (Jim Carrey) who doesn’t realize his life is a reality show broadcast to millions of rapt viewers.
It debuted just as reality TV shows like Survivor and Big Brother were about to hit it big. But 20 years later, with the world now under constant surveillance via our phone cameras, CCTV, and drones in the sky, is it any wonder there’s an entire syndrome called The Truman Show Delusion, in which people think they’re being watched by an audience at all times?
Office Space (1999)
Mike Judge, the same guy who brought us the hyper-realistic TV show Silicon Valley, made this film about bored office workers preparing for Y2K almost 20 years ago. The scene above, featuring the hated office printer, may in fact be the most cathartic in the history of techno-cinema.
Minority Report (2002)
Based on a Philip K. Dick short story, this Steven Spielberg film is about cops using people with precognitive abilities to stop crimes before they happen. We’re a few years from that, but algorithms as good as someone with ESP are in development, and law enforcement sees the film as a blueprint, not a cautionary tale.
Some of the tech in this film already exists, like the gesture-based “spatial operating system” used by Tom Cruise, even if it didn’t exactly take the world by storm (think Xbox 360 Kinect). The movie’s science advisor showed off something similar in a TED talk. The film also has lots of autonomous cars. But perhaps the most prescient thing of all in the film was how it depicted personalized advertising and product placement, a future in which we are most certainly entrenched.
Robot and Frank (2012)
This little indy film from 2012 takes place some undisclosed amount of time in the future, but probably is right about…now. You can see that in the designs they had for not only the phones and tablets, but also in the robot itself, which is based a bit on the Honda ASIMO design for a caretaker robot. Fun fact: the robot in the film, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, was designed by the same company that makes helmets for Daft Punk.
The Social Network (2010)
Perhaps this breaks the “no historical reenactments” rule, but few would probably say this look into the founding of Facebook was to-the-letter accurate (except for the deposition scenes). But what a look it is. As writer Aaron Sorkin put it, this isn’t really a story about an invention, it’s about “the themes of friendship, loyalty, jealousy, class, and power.” This film made it to just about every best-of list that year. All that from 2010, six years after Facebook’s debut. If there was a sequel today, imagine watching Jesse Eisenberg testifying before Congress.
Spike Jonze’s Her is a quiet romantic drama that’s all about one major relationship: Theodore Twombly (played to awkward perfection by Joaquin Phoenix) and an artificially intelligent operating system named Samantha voiced by Scarlett Johansson (is it any wonder he’d fall in love?).
Up for five Oscars, including Best Picture, the film came about when digital voice assistants were just getting started (Siri arrived on iPhone 4s in 2011). Since then, they’ve only grown more prevalent, as Alexa, Cortana, and the Google Assistant joined the party.
Will they ever get to the point that Samantha does, when she (SPOILER) joins up with other smart AIs to upgrade themselves? Probably not, but authors (including Arthur C. Clarke ) have long been waiting for networked systems to develop a consciousness—before the internet even existed. And they don’t think it’ll be nice.
Thankfully, in Her, the evolved OSes all leave the planet for greener pastures. We can only wait and see. Until then, enjoy Her for not only the tech and futuristic interfaces, but also the love story about healing a broken man.