Hacking, phreaking, computing and gaming. There are a lot of movies that really hit on some of these topics. Everyone is going to have their favorites, but I wanted to share mine in case you had Presidents Day off and needed some nerdy fun to get you through the forced vacation!
1. Office Space is the story of Peter Gibbons, a computer programmer who spends all day doing mindless tasks. Thanks to a hypnotic suggestion, Peter decides not to go to work at the same time his company starts laying people off. When layoffs affect his two best friends, they conspire to plant a virus that will embezzle money from the company into their account. The movie sports the scene where they take the fax out and smash it with baseball bats, the traffic scene on the way to work, the scene where he gets asked to work on Saturday, the scene where he pictures his boss and his new girlfriend (Jennifer Aniston) and of course the stapler. It is a classic and would be very easy to end up watching again tonight, as I write this…
2. Sneakers is probably one of the best hacking/phreaking movies of all time. Sure, it’s a little dated, but they all are. It was pretty good for the day though, and no completely off-the-wall ideas about what is and is not possible. The guy from 30something is awesome (aka “Dick”) and Martin Brice (Robert Redford) does a great job. River Phoenix is awesome and Dan Aykroyd is just like every conspiracy theorist ever. “It’s Not About Who’s Got the Most Bullets, It’s About Who’s Got the Information”. Great lines, great writing, great cast and still holds up as a pretty good movie after all these years (20, since it was released in 1992).
3. War Games is about Ferris Bueller (or a nerdy whizz kid of a Ferris Bueller) who connects into a top secret military mainframe and ends up with complete control over the United State’s nuclear arsenal. He then has to find the physical mainframe and disable it. What’s so awesome is that it’s InfoSec 101: use a password, put multiple layers of security in place and don’t hook ICBMs up to unsecured systems. Really makes the Wozniak quote “never trust a computer you can’t throw out of a window” make sense. I’ve been waiting for years to hear “shall we play a game?” Just like when I consider having an argument with my wife, “the only winning move is not to play.”
4. Tron is a movie about Kevin Flynn, a video game designer that gets converted into a digital person by an evil software pirate named Master Control. Disney somehow manages to take Jeff Bridges and turn him into a 3D version of himself. Complete with geometrical landscapes that comprise cyberspace, games and there’s even a girl (the one place where Tron isn’t very lifelike).
5. Hackers is the story of a young boy gets arrested by the Secret Service for writing a computer virus. He’s banned from using a computer until he turns 18. As a teenager, he moves to the big city to discover an awesome 2600-style underground of computer hackers. This one is complete with a teenage Angelina Jolie, skateboards, trench coats and modems. While it’s not completely realistic, it’s not utterly fantastical either (other than the hax0r kid getting the hot girl part). Imagine my disappointment when I got my first job with computers and Jolie wasn’t waiting for me…
6. Weird Science is a typical 80s flick about two unpopular teenage boys who “create” a woman via their computer. Their living and breathing creation is a gorgeous woman, Lisa (the name of the predecessor to the Macintosh, whose purpose is to boost their confidence level by putting them into situations which require Gary and Wyatt to act like men. On their road to becoming accepted, they encounter many hilarious obstacles, which gives the movie an overall sense of silliness.
7. Antitrust is a fictional account of computer programming extraordinaire Milo Hoffman. When Milo graduates from Stanford, he is recruited by Gary Winston, a character loosely based on Bill Gates. Winston is the CEO of a software company called NURV, on the brink of completing a global communications system called Synapse. Tragedy soon after strikes when Teddy Chin is murdered by a pair of Milo’s co-workers who made it look like a hate crime. Milo’s girlfriend Alice Poulson is turns out to be helping Winston and there are even bad guys working for the company inside the Justice Department. Basically, the message of the movie is that if you like computers, you should trusting no one and that nothing is as it seems. Luckily, in the real world, secrets can’t be kept for long (the more money you have the harder it seems to actually be to keep secrets). Which is why things like this don’t actually happen. But hey, at least we geeks get to feel important for a little while and this movie was actually well made. Having said that, Ryan Philippe is mediocre. Which was actually good enough in this one to be acceptable.
8. The Matrix is a fantastical look at futuristic hacker/programmer Thomas Anderson, living an ordinary life in 1999. Until Morpheus leads him into the real world, which is actually 200 years later and taken over by evil robots machines. The computers have created a fake 20th-century life called the Matrix to keep the human slaves asleep. The robots get power from the humans. Anderson is constantly chased by Agents (the opposite of that shirt that reads “I could replace you with a very tiny shell script”). At one point, the agents start replicating (I’ve accidentally filled a drive up by looping through cp before too). Anderson gets a cool name “Neo” and gets to be played by Keanu Reeves. All’s well (albeit varying degrees of well) until he becomes one with the matrix after about 7 or 8 hours of watching the movie. Actually, movies. It’s a trilogy. But Trinity (Reeves’ love interest) does use Nmap to run sshnuke against SSHv1 CRC32. Not a bad exploit for a lady wearing all leather…
9. The Net is the story of Angela Bennett, a computer expert whose interconnectedness comes back to haunt her. Back when Sandra Bullock was young and beautiful, she played an analyst who was never far from a computer. A friend like many of my own, whom she’s only spoken to over the net, Dale Hessman, sent her a program with a weird glitch needing debugging. She finds an easter egg on the disk which turns her life into a nightmare. Her records are erased from existence and she is given a new identity, complete with a police record. The best line is “computers are your life aren’t they?” Mostly because I find it easy to identify with such a line…
Oh, and she uses a Mac!
10. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the most recent movie on this list. And there are more than one. I won’t say to see one over the others, but do check out the hacker girl. The latest installment has the most awesome song from Trent Reznor in the soundtrack, which I could totally listen to while writing scripties (and have).
11. Takedown is probably the movie that cost the least on the list to make. It’s not a great movie, but worthy of cult status to many. But here’s the thing: hacking stuff is pretty boring to watch. Unless of course, it’s the 2 days a year you leave your basement to go sit in Las Vegas and hack stuff with real humans around you…
12. The Pirates of Silicon Valley is a documentary about the tycoons that took control of the personal computer market. It starts with their time in college and then covers the actions that built up global empires now known as Apple and Microsoft Inc. My favorite part of this is the way that they made Steve Ballmer out to be a complete idiot. The parts about Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Wozniak and Paul Allen were pretty well known to me, even before I saw the movie. With Noah Wyle I kept thinking that at some point he was going to throw on his scrubs and start giving someone an ER-style heart surgery. Anthony Michael Hall plays an uninspired Bill Gates. The best part of his part is when he does Saturday Night Fever on roller skates and then falls down. When he became the wealthiest man in the world I wonder if he got skate-dance lessons.
13. Swordfish was just a bad movie. But every computer nerd is going to watch it and hopefully turn it into a drinking game of some sort. Let me get this straight: a guy is supposed to hack into some of the most complex systems in the world and was supposed to do so while having relations with a lady and having a gun pointed at his head. Oh, did I mention, he’s dead if he isn’t done in 60 seconds? There are some really good uses of real computer stuff on some of the screens at time. But, Travolta should still give up his SAG card.
14. Johnny Mnemonic is the story of a data courier, again Keanu Reeves, who accepts a payload to big to keep in his head for long, that he then must deliver before it kills him. Classic Reeves, a cheesy flick. Has Dolph Lundgren, so must be at least funny-bad. Ice-T and Henry Rollins make appearances too (the 1990s, baby).
15. Live Free or Die Hard is the latest (4th) installment of the Die Hard saga. In this one though, the Mac Guy helps Bruce Willis hack into stuff and blow stuff up. This gets to be on the list because Bruce Willis says: “Command Center, it’s a basement.” I thought maybe he was talking about my place…
16. Minority Report is on the list because the tech that guy has was awesome. Not as good as the tech that Iron Man has, but a bit more realistic in some places. I actually think that a few products were developed after engineers watched this movie personally, and I’d love to see the rest made possible. Might have been higher except the cast.
17. D.A.R.Y.L. – After watching D.A.R.Y.L. I think I spent years thinking I was some sort of robot. Probably explains plenty. When I finally got around to reading Isaac Asimov’s Robot Series I guess I didn’t think I might be an android any longer. “It’s only human to make mistakes, but Daryl never does.” In this movie, a kid realizes he’s actually an artificial intelligence. He then gets chased down by the government, looking to reclaim their intellectual property. Classic ET-style the government are the bad guys kinda’ moments ensue.
18. Untraceable is a move from 2008 where Diane Lane plays a fed trying to track down a serial killer who posts live video of killing victims on the Internet. It’s borderline B-movie, but it’s not too badly done. Any plot gaps or technical mistakes I let slide due to the fact that the movie is set in Portland and the fact that I’ve always enjoyed Diane Lane.
19. Tron: Legacy is the second installment of Tron, which comes almost 30 years later, his son joins him in a movie that is more like the Big Lebowski turns digital samurai than the original… I’m kinda’ suck of the rich brat concept. But at least he breaks into a data center and blows stuff up before getting sucked into the Matrix…
20. Eagle Eye is the story of Jerry and Rachel, two strangers thrown together by a phone call from a lady they have never met. She makes them and others perform a series of increasingly dangerous situations, using everyday technology to track and control their moves. Turns out she’s a computer. Shia LaBeouf is the star of this. How he got to be the star of this, Transformers and the replacement for the Indiana Jones movies is beyond me. He’s not a terrible actor, but he’s not worthy of such reverence from the nerd/action movie elite… This is not as awesome a nerd movie as it is a symbol of the future of nerdy movies. I guess this one is more about that thing people call Mobility than computing, but close enough…
21. Lawnmower Man should have just been one movie. The only one with Stephen King, this was the first VR movie I remember seeing. Pierce Brosnan is the not-really-bad guy, but the creator of the bad guy. This is like a digital Frankenstein flick.
22. Disclosure is another movie from the 1990s (1994) that shows Michael Douglas getting seduced by a woman. But this time, he ends up stopping before he closes the deal. So instead of boiling the family pet, he just gets sued for sexual harrassment. Lots of computers and screen shots. And Demi Moore in a 90s power suit. Awesome stuff!
23. Virtuosity is about a virtual reality serial killer who’s actually more of a composite of serial killers. Weak plot, but Russell Crowe wasn’t a big star yet. It’s like of like Demolition Man, but with the VR spin on it. Russell Crowe is totally psycho. And he wears a couple of awesome suits in the movie (I’m pretty sure one of them was in Cool World as well). 50 terabytes was a lot back then!
24. eXistenZ is another artificial reality movie, but Jennifer Jason Leigh is a video game designer. I thought that the BioPort concept was too much, especially for the time. The theme was already a bit done by then, but it was at least a weird new twist…
25. The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes had Kurt Russell. It was from the 60s. But the time spent on explaining all the computing was awesome! The best part about this movie is that glimpse you get of what computers were like before the advent of the personal computer. Thank you to the Altair, Apple and other machines that helped to get us into a new world order!
Finally, while this clip isn’t a movie, if you were curious what hacking stuff really looks like most of the time:
- Every movie by Marvel Comics (except the Punisher movies – someday they’ll get that franchise right).
- Catch Me If You Can because of the social engineering awesome it happens to be.
- Independence Day because aliens apparently have Windows running on all their ships.
- Jumpin’ Jack Flash because Whoopi Goldberg is actually a somewhat convincing engineer (or not).
- Inspector Gadget because while it’s television, Penny has a laptop built into a book!
- The Big Bang Theory because while it’s television, the Warcraft episode was awesome!
- Mission Impossible gets a nod for having an upside down Apple logo (for the time).
- The Italian Job gets a nod for the real inventor of Napster (I guess he can duke it out with Metallica next).
- Revolution OS for being a documentary about Linux. I’d love to see more of this kind of thing in the years to come (there’s certainly enough money floating around in the computer world to make more of them happen).
- Jurassic Park had some computing in it, but doesn’t really count.
- The Thirteenth Floor doesn’t make the list because it wasn’t original enough in its look at virtual reality.
- Code Hunter was terrible.
- Enemy of the State didn’t make the list because I’m sick of movies making people into conspiracy theorists.
- Max Hedroom for being cool, new and unique at the time – and perfect for the era.
- Netforce – Oh wait, no, that was a typo.
- Ghost in the Shell – No wait, wasn’t doing animated here, was I…
- Electric Dreams because of the soundtrack.
- One Point O – Which might have gotten higher had the star not become a police officer in Law and Order.
- Wargames 2 – If only I could go back in time and stop it from happening…
- Real Genius – Why not…
- GoldenEye – Two Words: Boris Grishenko
- All of the Star Wars movies because of R2D2
- All of the Star Trek movies because if you read this far down you watched those too…
- Blade Runner because even nerds dream of electric sheep
- And the final for honorable mention is the Transformers series, because Transformers are robots
Very much excluded from this list:
- iRobot because if you need to ask why, you didn’t make it down this far…
- All of the Punisher movies by virtue of disgrace
- The Blade sequels, because while they did have hacking and computers later in the series, unless you’re Kate Beckinsale you don’t get to do movies about vampires
- Gone in 60 Seconds had a hacker named Toby, but it also had Nicolas Cage
- Ocean’s 13 had Roman but it also had Brad Pitt
- Superman III had Gus, but then, it was total crap
- XXX: State of the Union had another Toby (popular name for movie hackers) but then, it had Vin Diesel
- Ace Ventura had a hacker named Woodstock, but I can’t in good conscious put it on any list whatsoever