Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Best and Worst Use of Technology in Movies

I'm a nerd. I'm a geek. And I LOVE movies. This presents some interesting issues if you ever watch a movie with me: I CANNOT STAND the way technology is used and portrayed in movies, at least most of the time. Sometimes the writer/director/producer have no clue what they are doing with that technology. 

And therein lies the rub. Their use of technology is so baaaaaaad that it completely ruins the movie-watching experience for me: it's just annoying even though I usually end up liking the film.

At other times the technology makes it oh, so beautiful. 

I'm sure Neil deGrasse-Tyson feels the same way about how physics is portrayed in space. Oh, wait, he does, even when he actually likes the movie.

And Neil and I are not alone in this "fun". The geeks over at NASA watch the movie Armageddon to see who can find the most "impossibilities" in the movie. Apparently, the record is 168

And so here I present...

My Best and Worst Use of Tech in Movies

But first a warning and then a note.

WARNING: Movie plots and key scenes will be discussed. No complaining later about spoilers!

Note: The movie Hackerz will not be discussed or included in this list. In our house it is "the movie that shall not be named". It's right up there with Ishtar and Batman Forever. And The Red Baloon.

The Best

Matrix Reloaded (2003) - This one has to come first in my list because it marked an incredible "First" in movie history. In the movie there's this power plant where... oh, who cares? The movie wasn't that great. It served as a vehicle to get Neo into his epic battle with Elrond the Elf. And to teach us that French profanity sounds waaay cooler than English. But along the way Trinity does something incredible. She uses a real, unpatched SSH 1.0 buffer overrun vulnerability to hack into that power plant. She then changes the root password to Z1ON0101, and just like that, she is God on that system. When the movie came out in theaters you could use that hack to do some real damage. For the first time in history a fictional movie accurately portrayed a real hack.

Superman III (1983) - Before I go into just how cool the hack was in this movie, I do have to say that the rest of it is pure 1980s cheese. What was so cool about such a bad movie? Richard Pryor is a computer programmer who... OK, I laughed when I wrote that the first time. Richard Pryor... A nerd? Well, if he was he was one funny nerd. Anyway, he plays a software developer who writes a program that steals tenths and hundredths of cents and funnels them into his own account. Brilliant. And parodied countless times elsewhere. 

WarGames (1983) - A kid, with a cobbled-together computer, can connect into another computer a thousand miles away and use programs in a way someone didn't think about with possibly disastrous consequences? In the early-80's, playing off the Cold War fears, this was big time stuff but it wasn't far outside the realm of possibility. Modems were around, although they were incredibly slow and there really was no public internet. Phone phreaking was a real thing (until people stopped using fax machines and AOL). In 1986 I saw CompuServe for the first time and was floored. What David Lightman did in WarGames helped inspire me to pursue a career in computers. No joke.

Star Wars Ep. IV (1977) - There is so much to say about this movie that I have to limit my remarks to one thing: R2D2, while inside the Death Star, teaches us an entire course on modern Information Security. That little droid can connect into a wall socket and advance the plot faster than any writer could, but I digress. He "talks" to the main Death Star computer and obtains all sorts of information (which he does again in Ep. V on Cloud City). He operates garbage compactors. He opens doors. And he does this even though he is an unauthenticated, untrusted intruder. In 1977, computer security was little more than a guard at the front door, so this isn't that big of a stretch. Where is their authentication? Why do they trust anyone who can plug into a terminal? There is no auth or trust so he can perform his tasks and gather information with impunity. 

Apollo 13 (1995) - They invented "a way to put a square peg in a round hole, rapidly." "We need to make this (square thing) fit into the hole for this (round thing) using nothing but that." 'Nuff said. If you don't know what that means, throw a party and watch one of the best movies of the 1990's. And then sell your house because it would be easier than cleaning it.

Sneakers (1992) - Good writing/directing and an AMAZING all-star cast. What could make this even better? How about some amazing hacking using old-school social attacks?  The theory of a key-to-end-all-keys is a bit out there but not 100% impossible. The best thing about this movie is that they use very little technology to break into a building overflowing with it. And it's the best River Phoenix movie out there. 

The Social Network (2010) - Not a bad movie, if you unplug the plot from reality for 90 minutes. The "Winklevi" portrayal by a single actor is amazing. What is more amazing, though, is Zuck's first "Facebook" hack where he collects information about coeds from various "Facebooks" of Boston-area colleges/universities. It is a VERY well-shot scene with explanations that actually make sense. Would love to hear a modern web developer poke holes in it, since I haven't coded in any of the platforms used in the hack (Python, AJAX, etc). Key point: what he did is completely possible and it was portrayed in a cool way.

Cloak & Dagger (1984) - A mid-80's kids movie? What could possibly be interesting in here from a geek perspective? How about hiding top-secret data in an Atari cartridge? And the only way to access it to play the game in a certain way. BRILLIANT! Yes, it's an 80's kid's movie so don't expect a lot of plot or character development.

The Girl with the DragonTattoo (2009) - Lisbeth (the main character) is a private investigator, of sorts. What does she investigate? People, using her computer. Or rather using their computer to investigate them with some awesome hacking using real tools and methods. 

And now, brace yourselves for...

The Worst

Clear and PresentDanger (1994) - I actually like this movie. I'm a big Tom Clancy fan and I was really into this movie right up until I heard the nameless CIA tech say, "OK, sweetheart, let's get to work!" Jack Ryan has just asked him to do something of questionable legality and high difficulty, so he starts talking to his computer. Now, I have no problem with nerds who talk to their computers. Shoot, I do it all the time using somewhat colorful metaphors. My problem with this movie, which almost makes this movie unwatchable for me to this day, is that he wasn't actually talking to a computer. He was talking to a StorageTek 9310 PowderHorn tape silo (you can clearly see the StorageTek logo on the robot arm).

I'm sorry, a tape library robot is not a computer, no matter how you talk to it. It does look a lot more impressive than a mainframe (most likely what a CIA tech would have used to pull off this hack in 1994) with its arm swinging around but it cannot calculate squat. What it can do is store upwards of 150,000 tapes and several hundred terrabytes of data. Yes, those were impressive numbers considering the average desktop computer had less than 1 gigabyte of disk space.

Jurassic Park (1993) - If we were talking about how computers were used to create the film this one would be near the top of the list. But we're talking about how they are portrayed in the film. Nedry's computer setup is interesting (even Samuel L. Jackson can't hack into it!) but it is easily figured out by a little girl with big eyes. The worst part? An 11-12 year old girl knows how to use a $50K SGI workstation? Not on your life. And apparently not on her life either.

WarGames (1983) - Yes, this movie is in the best and worst category. I'm that fickle. Why is this one the worst list? For all the cool stuff they did with computers there is one thing they did that still bothers me 30 years later. When he first connects to the WOPR, David Lightman hooks it up to a sound processor to have it interpret the text into words, pretty revolutionary for consumer tech in his day, but it doesn't stop there. From then on through the film the WOPR can talk to him, and in the EXACT same voice no matter which workstation he is using. In 1983. No. Way. Oh, and the launch codes are cracked 1 digit at a time.

Mission Impossible (1996) - I won't go into the weird portrayal of email or AOL screen names, or whatever it is that Tom Cruise uses to communicate with Job, I suspended my disbelief on that one. What cracks me up every time is the hanging-by-a-wire ballet scene in the computer vault. A super-secret, super-expensive CIA computer, connected to nothing, that is incredibly hard to access? What exactly does it do? The antithesis of user-friendly or even usefullness. Why have such a secure room for a computer that holds digital data that is no doubt available elsewhere? Ugg. I'll stop now on that one because the next one is worse...

Enemy of the State (1998) - Will Smith and Gene Hackman in an action thriller? What could possibly go wrong? How about Jack Black using infinite zoom and 3D rotation on a grainy surveillance camera? (skip to 2:06 in this video)

Yes, this is one of Jack Black's earlier film roles where he plays a tech geek hired to pursue Will Smith at all costs. Including stretching the reality of 1998 graphics software and audience intelligence levels. 

The Net (1995) - ID theft, corporate espionage, and public infrastructure in danger over the internet? Reality in 2013 but in 1995 it was a pipe-dream. If they had set the movie in the near-future (a la Minority Report) it would have made more sense. Instead they tried to twist 1995 technology to make it look like it could do incredible things that simply weren't possible. If they made that movie today people would probably just shrug their shoulders and say, "Meh. The NSA does that on a Tuesday."

Swordfish (2001) - This one is the absolute worst. I thought I was watching an action movie, not a laugh-out-loud comedy. There are just far too many situations that stretch their geek cred a little too far. The low point is near the beginning when John Travolta, soul patch and all, puts a gun to Hugh Jackman's head and asks him to hack in a DoD database protected with 128-bit encryption in 60 seconds while being, um... "distracted" and typing at what must be 300 WPM. Which invariably works. Because movies.

Honorable mentions from TV:

CSI: NY - "I'll create a GUI interface using Visual Basic to see if I can track an IP address." Wow. So much ignorance crammed into one sentence.

Numb3rs (2005-2010) - One of my favorite shows of the time but they constantly made me laugh any time they showed the inside of the FBI office. They put together quite the swanky FBI office in downtown LA with projected computer screens and great looking graphics but the prop computers sitting in telco racks are 15-year-old (at the time) 1990s-era Compaq servers. I have spent countless hours working on them, including the oft-represented Proliant 6500. If you look closely enough in some scenes the server had 1.6" 9GB drives. Those were smokin' systems in 1998. Now my phone has more storage and processing power. And none of them were ever powered on which would have made dialog in the near vicinity inaudible. 

NCIS - Arguably the highest rated show on TV right now but they still have their moments. Like having two people hacking on the same keyboard at the same time, where the hacker is hacking a single computer but the target cannot be isolated. How is the hack stopped? By the two 1D10Ts typing in the keyboard? No, by the main character unplugging the !@#$% computer. Brilliant.

And some parting thoughts...

I left out quite a few possible nominees on all categories to keep this concise. My wife complains that I am a little long-winded when it comes to things I am passionate about. I do not disagree. Neither does my son, apparently. 

When movie-makers or TV people use technology it doesn't take much to make it realistic. Just screen it for a geek or two, which are VERY easy to find, and your problem can be solved. Want to do some product placement with EMC to put one of their HUGE storage arrays in a key shot? Have it be in a datacenter where it belongs, not in the middle of a @#$% conference room where the 90 dB, 1400 CFM fans would make it nearly impossible to have a relaxed conversation. Use advisers who will properly vet how you portray technology, just as you would the military, planetary science, medicine, or any other scientific aspect of your film.

Then maybe my wife will stop elbowing me when I laugh at inopportune moments of impossible ridiculousness that is technology in movies.

Hold on a minute, what about ID4? How can you possibly not mention Jeff Goldbloom's magnum opus of hacking? Maybe because it isn't really that cool and definitely not totally impossible (i.e. it doesn't fit into either category above). His character was an EXPERT in communications. Who's to say he didn't figure out a way to connect via TCP/IP and upload a custom virus? The display graphics aside, for a moment, it could work…