The Evolution of the Computer Through Film

The Evolution of the Computer Through Film

Hollywood has never really been sure what to do with the computer. The sight of someone tapping away on a keyboard, slowly writing and testing code before producing a useful program doesn't exactly set the heart racing.

But, as computers have evolved and become part of the fabric of everyday life, films have been forced to incorporate them into storylines, and sometimes even build the action around them.

However, some rules are still enforced: the computer will never crash, it will never need a software update and any search on an entire system can be conducted with 2 keystrokes, within 2 seconds, to perfect accuracy.

We chart the development of computers, as told by movies, in our list below.

WarGames (1983)

The year is 1983. The ZX Spectrum was released last year, with a mighty 16Kb of memory. Yes, it's early days, but Hollywood is just waking up to the potential of real computers featuring prominently in their movies with this, one of the earliest, surely also one of the best. Realising every gamer's dream since, young David, played by Matthew Broderick, unwittingly accesses WOPR, a military supercomputer, using nothing more than his humble IMSAI 8080 microcomputer and a bit of hacking. Under the mistaken belief that it's just a computer game, it turns out that his moves are for real, very nearly starting World War III in the process. If only this could have happened on Football Manager, then Leyton Orient would be gunning for their tenth consecutive Champions' League trophy tonight.



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Sneakers (1992)

The idea behind Sneakers was actually conceived during research in 1981 for War Games, but it took another 11 years for the project to come to fruition. Thus, the premise is similar: this time, a group of hackers (Hollywood loves hackers), who test the security of businesses by locating the weak points in their computer systems. Before long they're approached by a shadowy figure who blackmails them into using their talents to destablise the world economy to create anarchy. If it had been made today they could probably just go on twitter, tell everyone the martians were coming, and it would have the same effect in minutes. #everybodypanic



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Jurassic Park (1993)

The early 90s arrived and suddenly technology, as well as science, was reaching places it had never been before - at least according to the movies. The whole premise of Jurassic Park was built on pioneering biological engineering to create the dinos, but also cutting-edge technology, to keep them in check, and to entertain the punters on the island. Complex computer systems (using the very latest version of Unix) controlling the park's gates (failsafe, of course) computer-controlled jeeps and - contain yourselves - even interactive CR-ROMs. Whatever next?





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The Net (1995)

As the name suggests, this was the move where the growth of the nascent internet, and the general connectivity of life was explored. Sandra Bullock's Angela is a systems analyst who, enabled by technology, lives a wholly isolated life - which causes her trouble when she ends up on the wrong side of cyberterrorists who erase her identity. While predictably over-the-top, it did predict the rise of the remote office worker and also take a look into the pitfalls associated with the brave new world of the dominance of computing in everyday life. However, it's because of films like this that your parents still give you cheques and refuse to do "that internet banking".



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Hackers (1995)

The characters were called 'Crash Override', 'Acid Burn', 'The Phantom Phreak', 'Cereal Killer', 'The Plague', and 'Lord Nikon'; yes, this movie featured the glory years of hacking the information superhighway in cyberspace. Like The Net, while it was fairly preposterous, it did nonetheless take a look at the burgeoning subculture of the early hackers and programmers and was one of the earliest movies to feature the world of computing at its centre. Other notable elements included a fantastic electronic (of course) soundtrack, and the appearances of Angelina Jolie and Jonny Lee Miller, who married shortly after filming.



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Independence Day (1996)

OK, so we'll admit Independence Day isn't exactly what you'd call realistic, but it said a lot about the permeation of computers in everyday life that the chief method of saving the day was the uploading of a virus to the alien mothership via a laptop. Naturally, this could never be all that was required, with Will Smith taking a kamikaze flight with Bill Pullman after he delivered the greatest speech of all time, but the film still foresaw the general idea of cyber warfare. It also produced one of the greatest adverts of all time - watch below to see how an Apple Powerbook 5300 can literally save the world.



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π (1998)

A fantastically captivating film, π saw a mathematical genius using the power of computing to look for patterns in the stock market. Having potentially found, but then lost, a religiously-significant 216 digit number, his quest to retrieve it sends him mad. Darren Aronofsky, the maker of π, probably didn't realise it, but the following decade would see the huge growth of armies of similar mathematicians also using their skills to both predict world market behaviour, and to create financial devices within it, as part of the hedge fund boom. They may not have gone mad, but the financial system eventually did.



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You've Got Mail (1998)

Yes, it's a cheesy romcom, but You've Got Mail - named after the AOL email greeting - was the first movie to feature what is now a widespread phenomenon: internet dating. There are more sites than you can shake a stick at now, but in 1998, the industry was only just beginning. Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks' tale of unknown identities and anonymous love was a big hit, and documented another progression in the world of computing. We're also hugely surprised that this movie didn't receive a You've Been Poked reboot when Facebook got popular.



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The Matrix (1999)

Never a medium to shy away from taking things to their logical conclusion, 1999 saw the release of The Matrix which hypothesised that perhaps the whole world was one giant computer and that we were all living in a virtual reality. While this obviously didn't reflect the real development of computing (or maybe it does?), its huge success and subsequent influence on many aspects of culture showed that we lived in a society that was completely comfortable with these sorts of concepts. Additionally, in a case of art influencing real life, a character from the movie ended up lending his name to one of the new-fangled peer-to-peer sites popping up on the internet, namely the hugely popular (though not with the authorities) Morpheus.



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Perfect Stranger (2007)

A modern-day equivalent of The Net, this, admittedly terrible, movie warns against the "other" side of the internet. Rowena (Halle Berry) and her assistant Miles (Giovanni Ribisi) utilise practically every aspect of modern technology and computing to expose some dark secrets - hacking into emails, posing under false names on chatrooms and the rest. A recurring theme seems to be that nothing is ever secure in the modern world we live in. Remember: don't use 'password'. Or 'password1'.



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The Social Network (2010)

It was inevitable that the story of Facebook - a truly global cultural phenomenon - would make it onto the big screen, but it was less of a given that it should create such a compelling film. A story that, on the surface, could have made quite dry reading - essentially the development of a series of algorithms and a lot of coding - turned out, courtesy of Fincher and Sorkin's direction, a brilliant performance by Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg, and the claustrophobic atmosphere created by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' soundtrack, to be a thrilling ride. Computing has never seemed so cool; it was impossible to watch this movie and not try to think of your own billion-dollar startup idea (if you do have one, let us know).





(Images: All Star, Rex Features)

Tags: movies, technology

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