Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Top Ten Computer Geek Films of All Time

What is a computer geek film? It's a movie about the most nerdy of professions - computer programming - and how the urber nerd either saves the world, nearly destroys it, or, perhaps, changes it completely. Clearly a genre that has only existed since the 1980's, the cyber-geek film enjoyed a hey-day of sorts in the mid-nineties, when all things cyber were hip as well as fashionable. That's why this list of top ten films contains four from 1995 (the dawn of the internet era), more than any other year. But with two films making the list so far this year, 2010 is shaping up to be another bonanza year for the computer geek. Perhaps this is a harbinger of another internet bubble about to come.

And so, without further ado, here are the top ten computer geek films of all time.

10. The Net (1995) – With the unlikely casting of Sandra Bullock as a computer programmer who stumbles across an online conspiracy, The Net defines a whole genre of films I like to call “get-the-disk” movies: it doesn’t really matter what’s on the disk, the point is there’s a floppy disk (or nowadays, flash drive) that everyone’s after. One of the first films to integrate the internet into its story line, it did so a bit awkwardly, but with panache.

9. Johnny Mneumonic (1995) – Based loosely on a series of short stories by cyberpunk founder William Gibson, Johnny Mneumonic is a triumph of casting over substance, with Keanu Reeves creating his signature role as a super geek (he can hold something like an entire terabyte of digital content in his brain, although at that volume it tends to leak). Henry Rollins Jr. is perfectly mid-Nineties period as a punked-out brain doctor, and there are enough Japanese stunt men wielding high-tech shurikens to put the Kill Bill movies to shame.

8. Virtuosity (1995) –The early nineties saw a wave of “virtual reality” movies, including the Gibson adaptation Lawnmower Man and the noir-inflected The Thirteenth Floor. The idea of virtual reality is that computer geniuses are able to program a reality that’s more convincing than the real thing – or at least identical. The genre didn’t lend itself to great drama, but Virtuosity, with Russell Crow as a virtual serial killer and Denzel Washington as the cop on his tale, is the best of these.

7. Middle Men (2010) – A loving story about who two horny guys who accidentally invented the online credit card payment gateway while trying to find a new way to jack off, and how the Russian mob moved themselves into the business. Based on some real internet history, the movie emphases gangsters over software code, but it delivers a great back story on the seamier side of the internet, without which none of our high-flying firms like eBay or Facebook would be possible.

6. Live Free or Die Hard (2007) – The fourth Die Hard movie casts Justin Long, of the Mac/PC commercials fame, as an unlikely geek who gets in the way of super-cop John McClane and ends up helping him save the world from a bad-guy hacker played by Timothy Olyphant. Exposing the vulnerable nature of our online digital infrastructure, this Die Hard makes geeks cool while weaving a healthy quotient of car chases and explosions into a story that’s essentially about a giant systems crash.

5. Hackers (1995) – This fun little flick staring an impish Angelina Jolie and a pouty Johnny Lee Miller (whose career, unfortunately, never really took off from here) escaped the notice of critics, but really captured the “hacker” generation like no other. Hacking was both a mid-Nineties cultural moment (a combination of spandex pants, anime, laptops, and roller blades, otherwise known as “cyberpunk”) and a test of programming skill and braggadocio, really a kind of geek-boy rap culture. The test was to break into some big, secure, computer somewhere (government computers always better) and leave your mark of harmless fun, your cyber “tag” if you will. Embodying the utopian, anti-corporate ideals of the internet revolution – the exact opposite of, say, Sorkin’s money-loving protagonists in The Social Network – organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation keep the hippie hacker spirit alive today.

4. The Social Network (2010) – Writer Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher have delved deeply into the Facebook creation myth, as well as the personality of its creators and founders: the uber-geek Mark Zuckerberg, the loyal Eduardo Saverin, and former Napster bad-boy, Sean Parker. The result is a kind of West-Winginization of a digital start-up, replete with hard-drinking coding contests, but a compelling story, nevertheless. Its implicit critique of this supremely a-social set may be harsh - unlike earlier generations of cyber heroes, the young Zuckerberg and Parker are clearly more enraptured with dollar signs than friendships - but most younger audiences will see these instant billionaires as heroes, not losers.

3. Tron (1982) – In 1982, Disney stumbled upon a kind of zeitgeist magic with this little fable about a video-game/programmer geek who accidently gets himself digitized into the guts of a computer. Turning programming lingo into a kind of Aesop's fable (with the “CPU” as the Wizard behind the curtain, or the Queen of Hearts, if you will), what really made this movie shine were the special effects – one of the first to use computers to achieve a look never seen before. In Tron, for the fist time, the visuals were the metaphor. The original effects have been far surpassed now, but it was a cinematic moment capturing the awe, magic and wizardry of the new world of computers that could only happen once in history (as the remake, fun as it is likely to be, will no doubt demonstrate).

2. War Games (1983) – The quintessential hacking movie, in War Games, a fifteen year old Matthew Broderick and his girlfriend (played by Ally Sheedy) break into a defense department computer and accidentally almost start World War Three. Makes us remember that the internet is an invention originally intended to help civilization survive a nuclear war, War Games also found that perfect dramatization of the power of computer programming, giving us a very simple programming task that could initiate Armageddon. Perhaps software and computers have become too sophisticated to ever capture a programmer’s drama in so satisfyingly a simple manner again; or perhaps our fears a no longer as straightforward as they were during the Cold War. Either way, War Games is one of the great computer fables of all time.

1. The Matrix (1999) – In 1999, the Wachosky brothers took that decade’s earlier cultural mix of cyberpunk, post-modern French philosophy, AI, virtual reality, computer hacking, and the net to concoct an entirely new world of artificial, computer-programmed reality, and a hero-hacker – Keanu Reeves' Neo – who must wake up from artificiality and do battle with deadly computer programs. A kind of Tron on steroids, with a good infusion of Baudrillard to boot, The Matrix introduced a whole new bag of special effects (including the now-cliché “bullet time”) and a whole new level of computer-saturated reality. Still the benchmark of computer geek movies, The Matrix may yet take another decade of RAM miniaturization to surpass.

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