Our growing fascination with technology has spawned a plethora of films highlighting a variety of sci-fi gadgets and futuristic technology that we can only dream of. Many ideas presented in tech films from decades past have come to fruition (especially in telecommunications). As our technology grows in its complexity, so have these films grown in their intricacies and ability to explore our relationships to technology.
Another aspect of many of these films is the concept of fandom. Self-described fanboys/fangirls and “tech geeks” often have a favorite film or franchise that they hold near and dear to their hearts. Trekkies and Star Wars geeks are more commonly known but many movies in this genre have a cult-like following.
Many viewers of these movies will quibble about the ethics or the scientific possibility of the subject matter at hand. Recently, there have been several movies depicting Artificial Intelligence that pose ethical questions in addition to testing the boundaries of what AI can accomplish. Only time can tell where humanity’s technological advancements will take us. The following films document where we’ve been and where we are potentially headed.
20. Computer Chess (2013)
As far as nostalgic set pieces go, Computer Chess does a great job of capturing the feel of early 80s technology. IBM built the first personal computer in 1981 so this particular piece of technology was less ubiquitous at the time. Tech geeks will appreciate how far computing has evolved over the past thirty years. Chess fans may be slightly distracted by the self-help group shenanigans that serve as the subplot to this film.
The film takes place in the early 80s during a human vs. computer chess machine tournament in a hotel. Over the course of this weekend, the same hotel is hosting a self-help convention.
The movie looks at the line between humanism and technology that possesses the ability to think like a human. In the midst of this group of socially awkward geniuses, people are trying to reconnect with their humanity and disconnect from intellectual pursuits. It is also part of the mumblecore genre so the film relies heavier on dialogue than anything else.
Shot in 1.33: 1 aspect ration and black in white, if you didn’t know any better, you really get the feel that this was filmed in the 1980s. A Bolex 16 RX was used for some of the shots so it has a slightly fuzzy feel, which only increases the nostalgic effect. The movie has a lot of heart for the subject matter and it is easier than presumed to connect with some of the characters emotionally. Critics really should have lauded this film, but it is definitely worth watching.
19. TRON (1982)
One wonders if Steven Lisberger had any idea about how significant an impact computer hackers could have in the future? Granted, they don’t have the ability to accomplish what the hackers do in this film but it doesn’t make them any less nefarious. This is another film that introduces cool gadgetry such as computers and video games before they sky rocketed to prominence.
Video game designer Kevin Flynn is convinced his former colleague, Ed Dillinger, at ENCOM has stolen his code for some arcade game ideas. He believes he can hack into ENCOM’s system and prove that his ideas were stolen. Flynn doesn’t realize that Dillinger has created a Mater Control Program that has been stealing code from around the globe. The program digitizes Flynn into a computer file where he has to team up with TRON who is his only hope at surviving this deadly game.
Video games are a billion dollar industry now. At the time this film was released, the audience that it would have appealed to would be relatively narrow. While Walt Disney had done lots of animated productions by 1982, few were highly stylized as TRON. Those nostalgic for the 80s will love the original version of this film.
18. WarGames (1983)
The premise behind several 80s whiz kid/tech geek films is that somehow the hacker gets ensnared into some clandestine activity even though they believe they have everything under control. This movie was released during the Cold War when tensions were high between the U.S. and Russia. It was the perfect backdrop for a story that could potentially foment WWIII.
Matthew Broderick stars as David Lightman, a wisecracking high school student who excels at computer hacking. He stumbles upon a system that he believes is associated with a video game company. There is a trove of computer games that he would like to play but does not have the password. Unbeknownst to David, this is a classified computer system, which controls the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
After doing some research, he figures out the password and now the computer wants to challenge him to play a game. He decides to play Global Thermonuclear War with Las Vegas and Seattle as targets for the Soviets. Soon, the U.S. military is bracing for all out war even as the Russians deny any involvement.
David has to rely on his wits to determine whether or not this is a game or reality. Therefore, Matthew Broderick was perfect in this role as he has the ability to be smarmy and clueless when need be. A sequel to this film was inexplicably released fifteen years later.
This film is unique in that no movies were being made about people hacking into systems with personal computers at the time. Computers were usually reserved for sci-fi films. WarGames was ahead of its time in this respect even though the portrayal of personal computers has come a long way since then.
17. WALL-E (2008)
Disney Pixar has obviously had some smash hits with its CGI animation. This film is actually not only clever but engaging on an emotional level as we watch the journey of a lonely robot whose sole mission is to clean up the mess that humans have made of the earth. The film grossed over $200,000,000. Technology is a feature in this film but it is animated so it is not pure genre. It is still a fun movie to watch and hopefully not a cautionary tale.
Humans have abandoned the Earth 700 years ago as products sold from a large multinational corporation have polluted it. WALL-E, a tiny robot, has been charged with cleaning up the mess. He entertains himself by playing with some of the junk the humans left behind and watching videos. WALL-E is lonely until a ship lands and EVE emerges. Her mission is to determine whether or not Earth is again sustainable. WALL-E falls for her immediately and does not realize the adventure that awaits him.
Pixar has been successful largely in part of their ability to anthropomorphize objects whether they are robots, toys, or fish. We can extrapolate life lessons from many of these movies. Technology is used in this film to tackle a very human problem of waste and consumption of resources. In the future, humans have become so fat and lazy, they use hover chairs and consume food through straws. Hopefully mankind can learn a thing or two from this film and save itself from utter ruin.
16. Minority Report (2002)
Philip K. Dick wrote this short story that was then developed into a film directed by Steven Spielberg. This film has a unique premise and few films have ventured to explore anything too similar today. Forty years from now, we will see if the world Philip K. Dick envisioned does indeed come to fruition.
It’s 2054 A.D. and an elite crime-fighting unit referred to as Precrime has the ability to detect when a person is thinking about breaking the law. Three extraordinary people called Pre-Cogs possess the ability to see into the future.
The unit is headed by John Anderton (Tom Cruise). He thinks the unit is incapable of failure until one day the pre-Cogs determine that he will commit murder within the next 36 hours. He is not even sure who the victim will be so he accesses the “minority report” which is the premonition of the female Pre-Cog that will help him prove his innocence.
This is technically a very engaging film. The effects are fantastic and somewhat prescient as it turns out the U.S. government began using the term “precrimes” later that summer. The film does an excellent job showing the fallibility of technology as humans are increasingly relying on the very same technology to avoid the errors humans make.
15. Ex-Machina (2015)
The machines are rising. Or so many AI theorists would have us believe. There have been leaps and bounds in AI technology in the last 20 years but our collective imaginations still exceed our grasp thus far. This is a directorial debut for Alex Garland and another solid performance by Oscar Isaac (A Violent Year, Inside Llewyn Davis).
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a lottery to spend a week with the CEO of the company he works for, Blue Book, which seems to have replaced Google in some unforeseen future. Caleb is bookish, smart, and presumably a virgin. Nathan (Oscar Isaac) lives on a sprawling compound accessible only by helicopter, spends his days drinking, dancing, and working on his latest invention, Ava.
She is an AI prototype that seems to be built in the image of Caleb’s ideal fantasy girl. Nathan wants to do a test with Caleb to see if he believes Ava possesses self-awareness. Eventually, Ava begins to imply that Nathan is not being totally truthful with Caleb and Nathan implies that Ava is manipulating Caleb. It’s up to Caleb to figure out what is really going on.
This film relies on a slow building tension until it reaches its inevitable climax. Nathan on some level is the most human character in the film. Barefoot, drunk, and seemingly not as “in his head” as Caleb constantly seems to be. There’s also something clearly off about him from the get go.
The commentary is hopefully not lost on the audience as we watch the creation of the perfect woman, Ava. The film really is about her more so than the two men. It’s sleek, sparse, and will serve as cannon fodder for interesting conversations afterwards.