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Toasted Pixel Presents: The History of Computers Through Film!


It's no mystery that Hollywood films butcher history. "Based on a true story" means "well, people died in the real story too *shrug!*" But of course, many people don't know much about history or politics, so Hollywood can take many a liberty with facts.

But what about computers? There are a heck of a lot more computer users in America than there are historians. Surely, if Hollywood wants to make movies about computers, they can't insult our intelligence by taking as many liberties. Well, uh, anyway, let's go over the movies that have tackled computers, and the lessons they teach us about our electronic friends.



The Movie: WarGames (1983)

The Premise: Matthew Broderick, armed with a 20 baud modem and a floppy drive, accidentally accesses the military's most top secret computer when trying to hack into his high school mainframe. Yeah.

The Computer: This movie is about a computer named W.O.P.R. (War Operation Planned Response), which NORAD uses. What does the computer do? Well, it's designed to simulate nuclear attacks and counterattacks; wargames. And to make the wargames even MORE realistic, the military hooked up the computer to every nuclear silo in America, gave it the power to independently launch every nuke, and made the computer think that the simulated attacks from Russia are actually real. Good idea? It gets better! They decided this computer was so great, they didn't want to keep it to themselves, so they made it freely accessible to anyone on the Internet.

The Outcome: Thankfully, W.O.P.R. came bundled with a software pack that included Tic-Tac-Toe, which proved to be its undoing. When W.O.P.R. threatened to launch all of America's nukes, Matthew Broderick decided to make it play Tic-Tac-Toe while it calculated Armageddon. This overloaded its memory and shut off all the lights in the building (the international sign of computer overload), before it calmed down and calculated that the only winning move in thermonuclear global war was not to play (makes sense). Oh, and since the making of this movie, the military thankfully seems to have reversed it's "put the nuclear trigger on MyNukes.com" stance.

By the way, the best sequence in the movie is when the authorities catch Matthew Broderick (the world's best hacker), they lock him in a room with a computer networked to W.O.P.R. (oh, and the room faces the War Room at NORAD), and Matthew Broderick eventually escapes by hiding among a tour group that's going through NORAD's War Room. Broderick then ditches the tour group at the tour's next stop: a truck stop diner.

The Movie: D.A.R.Y.L. (1985)

The Premise: Kids are dumb with short attention spans. That's why it's just fine to create artificial children with 1985's four megahertz computer technology and 2K of memory slower than an ISA card.

The Computer: The military once again commissions an ill-advised computer: the AI for a child, D.A.R.Y.L. (Data Analyzing Robot Youth Lifeform), who is to be their prototype for the most absolutely terrifying super soldier in the battlefield somehow. When they let the little boy loose upon a foster family, leaving the boy without any knowledge of his creation, the brass is horrified to discover that the child adopts a child's personality and learns to like ice cream. Apparently displeased that the child hasn't slaughtered most of the midwest by this point, the military decides to terminate the child.

The Outcome: After having programmed him to fly the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, the military is surprised to find him escape in it. Although the SR-71 Blackbird runs out of fuel (by design) as soon as it takes off, the military apparently helps him out by refueling his plane before he flies thousands of miles and escapes. Man, this movie was boring.

The Movie: Short Circuit and Chopping Mall (1986)

The Premise: Computers aren't very powerful in 1986. However, if you shoot 1.21 gigawatts through those old machines, they gain computing power. And life.

The Computers: In 1986, two movies were released about deadly robots coming to life through lightning strikes in Frankenstein-esque births. Short Circuit was about an army robot who got struck by lightning and, in his new self-awareness, rejected all his military programming after finding out that his designer was Steve Guttenberg. Chopping Mall, on the other hand, was about a group of killer robots who couldn't get jobs in the military. Just like their human counterparts who couldn't become Green Berets, they became bitter and got mall security jobs (this is the actual plot of the movie). When lightning struck them, they became aware that they didn't get paid enough, and they started killing kids in the mall. Chopping Mall was the better film.

The Outcome: Steve Guttenberg isn't in Chopping Mall. See that movie.

The Movie: Deadly Friend (1986)

The Premise: Take the AI chip from a helpful, nonviolent robot, put it into a woman, and it instantly becomes EVIL.

The Computer: Wes Craven spins a tale about a computer whiz who creates an AI chip for his homemade robot. With this chip, the robot is cute, generous, eager to help, and wouldn't dream of hurting anyone even in self-defense. However, when the computer whiz's girlfriend, Kristy Swanson, gets killed by her dad, the whiz tries to revive her by putting the AI chip in her. Revived, she goes on a bloody killing spree. That's pretty much the movie. What did we learn?

The Outcome: Since the making of this movie, no one has bothered to revive dead women with computer chips, probably for this reason. Meanwhile, Kristy Swanson went on to play Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the 1992 film. Buffy died and got revived in the TV show incarnation of the Vampire Slayer. It's like, history repeating itself, dude. Whoa.

The Movie: The Net (1995)

The Premise: Female computer geeks who look like Sandra Bullock and spend all their time in chat rooms can't find a date with another geeky guy.

The Computers: The computer in this film is the Internet. Yeah, you heard me. The computer is the Internet. In fact, the best line from the movie is, "The virus is in the mainframe! It's infecting the entire Internet!" Once a virus hits the Internet's hard drive, Internet users everywhere see their web browsers begin to melt (we're not making this up), and the colors run down into little puddles at the bottom of their screens.

The Outcome: At the end of the movie, there's no more Internet. Makes sense to us!

The Movie: Hackers (1995)

The Premise: The best, most resourceful hackers in the world prefer the raw networking power of the Apple Macintosh OS 8.0. Villain hackers use Windows 3.1. No one, incidentally, in the programming or networking worlds uses UNIX.

The Computers: This film, an Angelina Jolie movie, is one of the first shows to depict the good guys using Macs and the villains using Windows (The Net, of the same year, also uses this theme). There's actually a scene in the movie where the hero Mac user comes home to find an evil PC laptop lying on his bed. The main villain PC user left it there, with a video message on it that furthers the plot. At the tail end of the message, the PC villain (for no reason) suddenly says, "Nice laptop, huh? Keep it, you should use it." You can hear Steve Jobs throwing his head back and laughing maniacally.

The Outcome: Angelina Jolie and Steve Jobs are too powerful a combination to overcome by any Bill Gates tool. Ain't fantasy great?

The Movie: StarGate SG-1 (1997)

The Premise: Sure, Apple Macintosh computers are good enough to hack into any computer on earth. But to take over advanced, interstellar alien overlord technology, you need the power of the Intel Pentium III processor with 128 Megabytes of RAM and the customer service power of Dell Inspiron laptops.

The Computers: These Dell laptops don't just hack into enemy alien computers. They also operate Atlantis, they interface with any intergalactic civilization's technologies, they dial stargates, and they're the all-around laptop of choice for the US military, even if you wouldn't think that the US military needs to use consumer-level laptops on outer space recon missions.

The Outcome: This holiday, for insanely low prices starting at $499, we won the intergalactic war!

The Movie: Contact (1997)

The Premise: Scientists have a "render alien signals into pictures" button on their PC's.

The Computers: Contact, the film adaptation of the Carl Sagan novel, revolves around the scientist Jodie Foster, who tries to interpret and respond to signals from an alien source. However, it turns out that humanity is a lot more prepared than you may think to receive alien signals. Early on in the film, the scientists receive alien signals that appear as static snow on their monitors. To clean it up, one of the scientists hits a button on the side of the computer that takes the alien data and instantly transforms it into a video image that they then rotate and fold at the touch of another button. We don't even have buttons on our computers to get chapter controls on the Mulholland Drive DVD.

The Outcome: Aliens turn out to be the crazy scientist guy who destroyed the world in Twelve Monkeys. Humanity decides to stay home after that. Good choice, humanity.

The Movie: Tron (1982, Released on Collector's Edition DVD 2002)

The Premise: A film showing footage of an awesome, visually stunning, imaginary video game (called Tron) is enough to make actual, horrible, visually primitive videogames called Tron successful.

The Computers: The computer in Tron was a sadistic, Roman dictator-esque entity called the Master Control Program. This entity was as brilliant as it was evil. What did it do? Well, in a little over an over an hour and a half, it managed to convince an entire country of real-life gamers to buy crappy video games named Tron for the next 20 years, by showing footage of an awesome, visually stunning Tron game that we knew full well didn't actually exist. But the images it showed of this imaginary game were so cool and exciting, gamers couldn't help but buy cheap, rushed Tron licensed games that didn't measure up.

The Outcome: While the video games for Tron have been underwhelming, the movie inspired a humorous Light Cycle sequence in The Family Guy, which makes it all forgivable.

The Movie: Resident Evil Apocalypse (2004)

The Premise: Web browsers come standard with "Back" "Reload," and "Find Hacks to Access this Secure Site" buttons, right next to the Google toolbar.

The Computers: We'd like to say we're kidding about that "Find Hacks" button, but the truth is that some guy in the movie hits that button on his web browser to access Raccoon City. Not just a website, but the city. That's a spicey hack he found.

The Outcome: Thanks to this hack button, the user can access any security camera, phone booth, and other plot-furthering devices in the movie.



The consensus: Foreign countries must think we've got the smartest computers or the dumbest humans. On a side note, if Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey had anything to do with modern computing, it'd be included here. However, it just doesn't.