I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That, Dave
Computers in movies and TV and the crazy things they do.
Web2Carz Senior Writer
Published: July 11th, 2012
ave you ever sent an email and had your screen fill with a graphic of an envelope flying off into the distance, accompanied by a “whoosh” sound? No? Then maybe you’ve taken a grainy black-and-white photograph and zoomed in incredibly close and used some handy filter to make a face that seemed like a blurry blob suddenly clear up to the point where you can tell what brand of sunglasses the person is wearing? You haven’t done that either? That must be because your computer exists in the real world and not in TV or the movies.
Computers have been handy plot devices in TV and movies since before the HAL 9000 computer took over control of the Discovery One and attempted to murder the entire crew in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Computers can get protagonists into and out of any tricky situation, they can help catch the bad guy, they can even let you live in an alternate reality.
Computers can get protagonists into and out of any tricky situation, they can help catch the bad guy, they can even let you live in an alternate reality.
But you don’t have to look to sci-fi to find examples of computers doing things that computers just don’t do. Pretty much every time you see a computer on TV or in a movie, it’s doing something computers can’t do, or it’s doing it in a really unrealistic way.
Some of the inaccuracies are obviously done for expediency’s sake. Rather than cut to a close up every time you want to show what’s on a computer screen, you just have the computer display ridiculously huge type. Likewise you can have computers that beep and make all manner of electronic-sounding noises to add to the suspense of a scene.
But sometimes, whole films are written around a ridiculous computer-oriented premise. The prime example is The Matrix, in which computers use the heat from human bodies as a source of power when, as Popular Mechanics pointed out, burning the calories pumped into the humans to keep them alive would produce much more heat. And let’s not forget the waterfall of binary code that looks really cool on screen but means nothing in computer terms.
Anyone who’s watched a police procedural on TV has seen computers do impossible tasks many times. Photo-editing software is often the most exaggerated, with people doing amazing image enhancements like artificially aging people in photographs, airbrushing someone out of a picture, or pulling spectacular detail from lo-res images, all with a few simple keystrokes.
Likewise, video chat in movies is always shown to be crystal clear, with no lag, no pixelization, no dropped connections.
Some of the classic features of big- and small-screen computers include discs that are readable by any computer, regardless of operating system, passwords that can be guessed in two tries, viruses that can be uploaded by dragging and dropping, or in the case of Fortress, by typing “upload virus,” and network systems that, as in Speed, can be shut down by smashing the monitor.
But of course cinema requires a suspension of disbelief, so it’s easy to overlook the fact that everyone who uses a computer can type a zillion words a second (every movie and show with a computer in it), or that police software can match fingerprints in a matter of seconds (CSI), or that hackers need six or seven monitors (Swordfish), or that the internet can be used to access all data about every person everywhere all the time (The Net).
The reason computers are so good as plot devices is that most people don’t understand how they work, so they already seem magical. This provides screenwriters with the perfect MacGuffin. After all, who needs a Deus ex machina when a simple man-made machine will suffice?