10 Unrealistic Uses of the Internet in Movies

Sep 1st, 2010

Hollywood is usually several years behind culture, but the disconnect between the way we actually use technology and the way it’s portrayed in movies is just laughable. The upcoming The Social Network looks to be the first movie to get it right, and that’s because it’s based on a nonfiction best-seller. Most of the time, Internet use in movies is ridiculously out of touch, hard to understand, and just plain wrong. For those who’ve ever wanted to shout at the screen when a computer appears, this list is for you.

  1. The Net: Released in 1995, when Hollywood was just starting to figure out the Internet was a real thing, The Net boasts bizarre tech and nonsensical moments that could only happen in a movie. Websites work in bizarre ways that could only be possible in movies, and as is typical of big-screen stories of the Internet, none of the screens or software remotely resemble anything that real people use. It was funny in its day and is adorably out of date now. Intended to be a scary story about identity theft, the only person this movie will scare is your grandmother.
  2. Independence Day: It’s hard to pick the most improbable part of a movie where Bill Pullman plays a fighter pilot who becomes president, but the Internet and computer use sticks out like a sore thumb. Jeff Goldblum is the scientist who figures out that the aliens are using Earth’s satellites as a relay system to coordinate their takeover, which eventually leads him to posit that a computer virus uploaded to the mothership will destroy them. Good idea, terrible execution. You can’t get PCs and Macs to play nice, and they’re both made by humans; what are the odds you’re going to be able to transmit a computer virus to a machine created by an alien species? Yet it worked, for reasons that only make sense in summer blockbusters.
  3. Misssion: Impossible: Brian DePalma’s Misssion: Impossible is a rock-solid caper movie, but it’s also got some of the most nonsensical uses of the Internet in movie history. As expected, none of the computer interfaces look like their real-world counterparts, and to make matters more confusing, the e-mail program seems to exist in a weird area between cartoon and wish-fulfillment. Tom Cruise’s character at one point just starts sending out e-mails at random to an address he’s not even sure will work, and he does so through a loopy program that doesn’t act at all like a simple e-mail tool like, say, Gmail. Would it have been so bad for Cruise to actually have to track down an e-mail address?
  4. The Lawnmower Man: Bearing so little resemblance to the Stephen King story of the same name that the author successfully sued to have his name taken off the film, The Lawnmower Man is another wacky entry in the early-1990s group of films that made wild speculations about online technology that were almost entirely baseless. Jeff Fahey plays a gardener with a learning disability who becomes smarter through a combination of drugs and virtual reality, and he eventually acquires telekinetic powers and the ability to turn himself into pure energy and travel via phone lines. I wish that were possible: rush hour would be a thing of the past.
  5. Swordfish: Hugh Jackman stars in this weak thriller as a hacker recruited by a master criminal. But rather than actually sit at a computer and try to work, he often sits on a throne before half a dozen monitors spitting out pretty but useless information. It’s part of Hollywood’s tactic to make computer programming look sexy and adventurous, when the job really involves a lot of repetitive typing that’s not much fun to watch (or do). Why does he have six or seven screens? What can possibly be accomplished?
  6. Feardotcom: This brain-dead thriller from 2002 involves a series of murders, and (eight-year-old spoiler) the Internet is ultimately the killer. Seriously. Cops investigate strange deaths and find out that the victims all visited a site called Feardotcom that showed voyeuristic scenes of torture that literally scared the viewers to death. After a series of twists I won’t go into, it’s revealed that the ghost of a murdered girl set up the site to get revenge on those who passively watched her murder, killing them within 48 hours of being exposed to the site. On one hand, props to the ghost for learning basic coding skills. On the other, you have to be kidding me.
  7. Hackers: The people responsible for Hackers likely meant well, but this 1995 thriller bears about as much resemblance to real hackers as paper airplanes do to 747s. The interfaces of the hackers’ computers are increasingly fantastical, and the very notion of hackers is treated with the lack of subtlety you’ve come to expect from big-budget Hollywood movies. The Internet is portrayed as a mystical place, and the film relies on cheap animation to cover the fact that nothing on screen is exciting or real.
  8. Virtuosity: This 1995 movie offers a twist on the man-in-the-machine story: this time, an evil computer program downloads into an android body and goes on a real-world killing spree. The movie’s about as dumb as that sentence makes it sound, and it’s also hilariously off about everything technological, from the way the chaarcters use the Internet and virtual reality to fight crime to the outlandish designs and ideas. If the Internet ever makes it possible for programs to (a) become psychotic and (b) download into robot bodies, we’re going to have problems.
  9. Tron: Sure, it’s a cult classic that pioneered CGI effects, and it’s getting a sequel this Christmas, 28 years after the original hit theaters. But come on: aside from the (awesome) light cycle races, Tron offers one of the more ludicrous uses of the Internet in film history, drawn from a time when people knew that computers were capable of doing something but they weren’t sure what that something was. Jeff Bridges’ character is zapped by his machine and broken down and transformed into bits of information re-created inside the system, where he and other programs battle the Master Control Program for freedom. A fun ride, but a quaint look at just how fanciful the Internet can be in movies.
  10. Weird Science: Easily the least realistic use of the Internet in movies, hands down. It’s not just the online interface that’s surreal, choked with flying cartoons and equations and basically looking like a reject from Tron. It’s the idea that the Internet, some copper wiring, and a Barbie doll can create a living, breathing woman. Sure, the film’s intended to be a kind of sci-fi fantasy, but still, that level of mad scientist wouldn’t have been possible without people thinking the Internet is some scary and unfathomable space, instead of just a group of computers crunching numbers together. You can program your machine until the cows come home; it will not turn into Kelly LeBrock.

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