Technology has permeated nearly every aspect of our lives, and movies are no different. Sometimes films can really hit the nail on the head — providing a true glimpse into a possible future or creating an inspiring recount of a famous moment in tech history — but other movies simply fall flat.
I wanted to make a short list of movies that got it right and a few that got it wrong. This is by no means a complete list (that post would be exhausting) but these are my top picks for must-see movies and a few notable avoids.
Spike Jonze delivers what just might be the most realistic look at technology in the near future. Her centers around a lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix) develops a relationship with his artificially intelligent operating system (voice by Scarlett Johansson).
The movie itself is brilliant, but it’s the portrayal of technology that was the most compelling part of the film for me. Gadgets today are a distraction: a smartphone in your hand, a watch on your wrist, a screen above your right eye. That means that having information available at all times comes with a hefty price — temporary removal from the real world around you.
Despite incredibly advanced technology, Her envisions a much more humanistic world. Technology is completely voice-centric, with the majority of interaction happening through an in-ear plug.
There’s no awkward gestures or an oppressive amount of touchscreens everywhere. The technology in Her has advanced beyond the need for these intermediary user interfaces before the advanced OS is even released.
Her will surely seem dated in just a few short years, as is often the case with movies revolving around technology (You’ve Got Mail, anyone?). But it’s an important movie for right now, providing a much more hopeful portrayal of future technology when the industry it trying (and largely failing) so shove watches and glasses down our throats.
The Social Network (2010)
The Social Network tells the story of the founding of one of the most ubiquitous technology companies today: Facebook. It’s obviously not completely accurate — certain liberties are invariably necessary for creating a compelling film — but the basic plot provides interesting insights into the founding of a company that many people use everyday.
The movie addresses a very important question: how valuable is an idea? I believe it lands on the same conclusions as me — not very valuable at all. At the end of the film, when the Winklevoss twins are suing Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) raises an important point: no one in that room, even the prosecutor’s clients, are doing what Facebook was doing. Without Zuckerberg, would Facebook even exist?
In real life, the Winklevoss twins eventually dropped the case against Mark Zuckerberg by agreeing to a settlement.
I’m willing to admit that Hackers might not be as compelling today if you hadn’t also seen it when it was first released, but my enjoyment of this film ranks high enough for me to include it on my must-see list.
The movie begins in the courtroom, where a young boy is banned from using a computer until his 18th birthday for writing a computer virus. The movie’s plot unfolds after the young boy returns to the internet and must foil a vicious virus by a government contractor.
Despite featuring technology that now almost looks like a parody of itself, the plot of Hackers is still highly relevant today. Kid writing an incredibly harmful piece of software? Check. The government involved in some pretty shady shit? Check.
Plus, who wouldn’t want to hang out at that high-tech cyberpunk club?
Avoid these films
Do yourself a favor and stick with the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson. In fact, I might even recommend seeing Pirates of Silicon Valley over Jobs. It’s not because Jobs is laughably bad (that would be entertaining in its own right) but because it’s just a terribly mediocre movie.
It’s hard whittling down the life of an extremely accomplished person into a movie-length adaptation, but Jobs just felt forced. There were scenes (like when Jobs went to India) that felt included only because they needed to be. Entire subplots were summarized in one single movie line, which often felt out of place.
We’ll have to see if the Aaron Sorkin adaptation is any better. Sorkin seems to be approaching the film in a much more promising way — he’s quoted as saying that he plans to “identify the point of friction that appeals to [him] and write about that,” which is much more compelling than trying to fit everything into a single film.
Minority Report (2002)
There’s a good chance that you’ve already seen Minority Report, but if you haven’t, I urge you to continue avoiding this film. I may be in the minority with this opinion (heh), but I think Minority Report has had a fairly negative impact on real-life technology, and we’re only now starting to get back on track.
I think my biggest problem is with touchless interfaces — they’re just so unnatural. They look damn cool, but the practicality is much devices is extremely limited. That’s because touch is an important part of human interaction. Tactile feedback allows us to know how hard or fast to move something, if we’re properly grasping something, and when something has been properly handled.
Bret Victor, in his essay A Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction Design, proposes a thought experiment:
Try this: close your eyes and tie your shoelaces. No problem at all, right? Now, how well do you think you could tie your shoes if your arm was asleep? Or even if your fingers were numb? When working with our hands, touch does the driving, and vision helps out from the back seat.
Waving your arm to move a window or interact with a picture is exactly the same. It’s interacting with information while completely numb.
I consider Minority Report to border on the edge of being harmful because it made people think that touchless interfaces was an improvement over current technology. As a result, that’s the direction that some technology headed (check out my rant on the Leap Motion Controller for The Verge). But it’s not a step forward, it’s a step back.