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Garbage in, garbage out – technology in movies

Thursday, January 11, 1996

Bullock’s character still has to defeat the leading bad guy by hitting him over the head with a heavy object

Suddenly our movie screens are about to become computer screens, as Hollywood releases a crop of films about the Internet and virtual reality. Just when you thought the cinema was the only place you could escape from the media hype, it appears that swords and kilts are yesterday’s news.

The Net, starring Sandra Bullock, started the process here last autumn.  Johnny Mnemonic (starring Keanu Reeves) is due next month, and Virtuosity (with Denzel Washington) is on its way. These are big-name stars, and the films have the budgets to match, but their directors and writers insist they are thoughtful and timely examinations of how technology is changing our lives.

‘I see it as a fable for the information age,’ says Johnny Mnemonic’s writer William Gibson. ‘The film is a cautionary tale about how technology can expand our minds and horizons and how it can also reflect the worst of what we’ve become,’ says Brett Leonard, the director of Virtuosity.

However, there’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip and these films are not topical and interesting explorations of identity and humanity but familiar action thrillers with unconvincing depictions of computers threatening to conquer the world. More jumping on the bandwagon than surfing the new wave.

The Net is set in the present and shows how dependent we all are on information about us held on computers. Criminals wipe out all trace of software expert Angela Bennett (played by Sandra Bullock) when she receives a floppy disk containing secret information. Angela’s ability to run her life without leaving her computer (including ordering a pizza over the Internet) makes her particularly vulnerable to such an attack.

The film, directed by Irwin Winkler, depicts her sheltered and high-tech life convincingly, but when she leaves her desk, she leaves the best part of the film behind her. We get a depressingly familiar list of chases and car crashes – there is even a chase scene in a fun fair – and despite her technological prowess, Bullock’s character still has to defeat the leading bad guy by hitting him over the head with a heavy object.

The biggest problem, however, is that for all its pretensions, the film has a very confused approach to technology, The Net is full of holes.  It sets out to raise valid questions about the role of computers in our lives, but then distorts the truth about this for the sake of the plot.

The studio argues that The Net describes a world in which good hackers can log into remote computers and alter any information they choose: flight plans, top-secret government information, even someone’s identity. Of course, there are files containing information about all of us stored on computers but there is no way any of these confidential files can be changed using the Internet.

Just because computers got clever doesn’t mean the people looking after them got stupid. Most organisations charged with storing personal data just don’t allow any dial-up access to the computers containing the records.

The film plays on people’s fears of computers. The audience is given what has come to be the cinematic party line on computers – they’re smarter than we are, they’re no substitute for real life, and sometimes even pulling out the plug won’t stop them.

In their Hollywood incarnation, computers make excellent bad guys in action films, except that they don’t wear black and they don’t move around a lot. Virtuosity overcomes this by bringing a database of serial killers to life. One American reviewer commented that the film resembles its computerised villain – all flash and no flesh – and certainly the closest it gets to virtual reality is in being virtually the same as many other technological chase and kill movies.

The most eagerly-awaited film in the incoming wave of computer films is Johnny Mnemonic, adapted by William Gibson from his own impressive short story. Gibson coined the phrase ‘cyberspace’ in his novel Neuromancer and might be expected to produce something thoughtful. ‘Johnny Mnemonic is phrased as an action-chase piece, but our real agenda is a little more serious than that,’ Gibson has said.

Unfortunately, this agenda seems to have been lost in the $30 million budget and curious cast. Keanu Reeves stars as the man who has had his memory removed so he can act as a human courier for computer data, and he is supported by rock singer Henry Rollins, rap artist Ice-T and musclebound Scandinavian Dolph Lungren. On its release in America earlier this year, it received only moderate reviews.

What is so frustrating about these films is that they are wasted opportunities to examine more deeply the issues they only touch on amid the chases and fights. There are good films to be made on the problems of identity in such an interconnected world and attempts to explore how our lives will be changed by technological advances would be very welcome.

Perhaps the action thriller genre employed by The Net, Virtuosity and Johnny Mnemonic just isn’t the right one to discuss this material. One wonders if studio bosses thought, ‘we have to make films about computers to cash in on all the Internet hype, but because computers are inherently boring we’d better throw in some explosions and shootings.’

Hollywood thrillers can hardly be said to reflect real life, and it’s in everyone’s daily life that the real impact of this technology is being felt. There’s a computer programmers’ acronym that is appropriate here:  GIGO, standing for ‘garbage in, garbage out.’

If you make a basic error at the start, you’ll get nonsense at the end.  If Hollywood still gives us the old cliches about computers, then its films will fail to address an important area that could really do with some artistic interpretation.

(first published in The Irish Times, Thursday, January 11th, 1996)

Posted by David in • Irish TimesTechnologyFilm