Those born in the mid-to-late 80s were the first generation to learn of the Internet in school. In between QWERTY lessons on old, rectangular Apple computers and games of Oregon Trail, the teachers wanted us to broaden our minds in the mid 90s using this thing called a “browser.” If you type in a word in this “browser,” a “webpage” will “load” on the “netscape.” It’s really a magnificent time to be alive.
Later, AOL became the most popular home Internet system, using a dial-up communication that tied up the phone line. Now it was in the hands of the public, and what a great tool for research. What kind of magical things will we learn and contribute to the human condition? The entire planet is now an oyster for all. What will it bring next?
I recently put this question to the people, on websites known for their candor, acerbic wit and sobering thought, reddit, 4chan, and Facebook: “dude ur a f@! [sic]”
Hollywood, of course, had forethought to see the dangers of the com-pu-ter. Long before the Y2k panic, the 90s and early 2000s were filled with movies transmitting warnings about just how dangerous these devices could be if they fall in the wrong hands. Some time between WarGames and Swordfish, the Internet became a digital boogeyman, preying on the unsuspecting. So we’re going to take a little trip back to the days of Tomagatchis, Pogs, Orbitz, Clearly Canadian, and slap bracelets. Here are some alarmist, Internet, virtual reality, and other cyber-related panic films of the 90s and early 2000s.
15. The Lawnmower Man 1 and 2
Stephen King‘s story “The Lawnmower Man” involves a man who follows the lawnmower naked and eating the grass that shoots out. It is revealed in the story’s scant pages his company is run by the greek god Pan, God of the Wild.
I’m not sure if you caught the subtle differences between King’s story and Brett Leonard’s 1992 film, which features virtual reality technology that trains apes to be soldiers, but King certainly did. He sued and successfully got his name removed from the project.
The plot revolves around a pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan using his new technology to increase the intelligence of a mentally challenged gardener named Jobe (Jeff Fahey). If anything, the plot more closely resembles the 1968 film Charly. Because technology is always evil in films like this, Jobe plans to enter the mainframe and become pure energy, infiltrating every electronic system worldwide.
14. The Thirteenth Floor
The same year The Matrix was released, another film dealing with a virtual reality subbing for our own for nefarious purposes. The Thirteenth Floor, rather than mask reality to control the world and harvest people, deals with multiple VR simulations that are used to mask personalities vying for control of a technological company. Its boardroom backdoor shenanigans are far less interesting, or even relevant, than The Matrix‘s fortune cookie philosophy, and the film bombed terribly.
13. Johnny Mnemonic
William Gibson delved into Hollywood throughout the 90s, penning two separate episodes for The X Files and selling the rights to his work to the highest bidder. In the case of Johnny Mnemonic, that bidder was Robert Longo, who worked closely with Gibson with the intention of making a small, arthouse film based on the short story. Before it was released, critic Amy Harmon praised it as huge moment in which counter-culture, cyberpunk, and nerd culture would transcend into the mainstream.
Then, of course, everyone saw it.
Keanu Reeves stars as a Mnemonic courier, or in laymen’s terms, a guy with a chip in his head that has secrets. The corporate secrets in his head are of great value, leading to countless chase scenes. According to Gibson, the film was largely recut into mainstream nonsense by the American distributors. But it’s hard to imagine a good film at the core of this mess.
12. The Matrix
The Matrix is pop philosophy for lazy stoners, so it’s fitting that Bill and Ted’s Bill is the one to bring it to us. The films feel as though they were coddled together from a few ideas for neat trailer shots and a handful of lightly skimmed Philosophy For Dummies books. It’s the cliff notes of stupid.
Yet it remains wildly popular, despite two disappointing sequels. For the three people who haven’t seen it, it posits that we are living in a world controlled by robots who have presented us a tangible virtual reality while our actual existence is fetal-like. Since Donald Trump was elected, the world has seen a rise in actual geniuses such as Elon Musk waxing technological on the likelihood that we are, in fact, living in an alternate or virtual existence.
11. Strange Days
Based on an idea from James Cameron, the film that almost destroyed Kathryn Bigelow‘s career plays with one of the most favourite sci-fi conceits of the 90s: Within just a few short years, Los Angeles will be a vaguely futuristic wasteland. Days involves a new illegal technology that records memories from the user’s cerebral cortex, allowing others to virtually relive the experiences from a first person perspective. The blending of sci-fi and noir dates back to Blade Runner, but here it’s taken to 90s extremes, conjuring images of the Rodney King riots and Lorena Bobbit.
FearDotCom was released in 2002, however the millennium years of the horror genre didn’t start until a few months later. It beat out The Ring by two months, which sparked the J-Horror craze in America. FearDotCom also dealt with technology attacking victims – in this case, a website created by a ghost that kills its victims 48 hours after they pay it a visit. One could argue it was trying to get the jump on The Ring. It could not have failed more spectacularly, currently holding a 3 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes. Words like “offensive” and “unoriginal” were thrown out. It had to be cut and resubmitted to the MPAA to avoid an NC-17 rating due to the extreme violence.
The Lawnmower Man‘s Brett Leonard strikes again. Was there ever a filmmaker clearly more terrified about the implications of virtual reality technology? It seems like Leonard was trying to warn us of a world in which VR will bring about the apocalypse – his only concrete evidence at the time was the neck-strain of playing Virtual Boy. This time around, Russell Crowe plays an AI simulation created with personality traits drawn from several famous serial killers. He breaks out of his police training simulation and into our reality because…science. It’s up to Denzel Washington to stop Crowe’s killing spree.
The one upside of this overlong dreck is the pairing of Crowe and Washington – which led to the latter’s request he play opposite him in Ridley Scott‘s American Gangster.
8. Under Siege 2: Dark Territory
Now we enter the terrorist portion of the list. Today, the internet is a genuinely concerning factor in breeding lone wolf terrorists. ISIS saw the potential of the platform to reach out to disillusioned, marginalized, angry young men and recruit them – either as lone wolves or a modern sleeper cells.
In the 90s, however, if you could type more than 100 words a minute, you had the ability to hack into any system and hold it for ransom. Or, as Eric Bogosian’s limp-wristed villain in Dark Territory does, you could take control of any satellite and use it to blow things up real good.
James Bond delved into the world of the Internet twice – first in A View to a Kill, which found villain Christopher Walken planning to destroy Silicon Valley and second in Goldeneye. The latter pits Bond against a former 006 agent, Sean Bean, who was presumed dead. 006 plans to use the Goldeneye satellite to rob the Bank of England and destroy all records. But 006 isn’t the real villain of Goldeneye. The master behind the scenes is henchman Boris (Alan Cumming), the nerdy hacker who makes it all possible and rises triumphant bragging about his hacking invincibility. He almost gets away with it too, were it not for that liquid nitrogen.
In Peter Howitt’s Antitrust, the parallels to real-world billionaire Bill Gates are impossible to ignore. Roger Ebert opined that it was surprising Tim Robbins‘ Gary Winston didn’t have to wear a nametag reading, “Hi, I’m not Bill!” to avoid prosecution for libel.
The film’s setting, and Robbins’ look and enthusiasm, is clearly modeled after Microsoft and its founder. Essentially, the studio pitch was “What if Bill Gates….was evil?”
Ryan Phillippe plays a young computer genius recruited by Robbins’ NURV to assist in the creation of a worldwide media distribution system. He grows suspicious when the source code comes almost tailor made at all the right moments. Soon he realizes that Robbins is killing young hackers around the world and stealing their code. It’s a fine idea for a thriller, were it not so clumsily paced and outrageously silly. Hopefully the upcoming adaptation of Dave Eggers‘ The Circle – a similar albeit more modern take on surveillance and the tyranny of monopolies – will right all the wrongs this film managed to make.
One of the few excellent films on this list is inspired by a real-life hacking incident in the 70s perpetrated by a hacker named Cap’n Crunch. John Draper discovered that the whistles offered in the cereal box, when blown in correctly, can mimic the exact pitch of a pay phone’s dial tone, allowing him to make free long distance phone calls. One of the characters in Robert Redford‘s band of Robin Hood-esque thieves is known to have “had some trouble with the phone company.”
The movie follows Redford’s gang as they unwittingly take possession of a “black box” – a key that allows the user to hack into any encrypted system in the United States. It can make banks fail, it can send two major airplanes on a collision course, it can black out the entire Eastern seaboard. It’s the ultimate key, and anyone would kill for it.
This entry, though much more recent than the others, echoes back to the heyday of thrillers like Disclosure and The Net – proving that Hollywood has not learned very much about how computers work since the previous century. They even dug up the bedraggled, half-drunk corpse of a Harrison Ford impersonator to mutter and grumble his way through a standard 90s home invasion flick. Super cyber criminal Paul Bettany – who is clearly evil due to his charming British accent – holds Ford’s family hostage so he can override his bank security protocols and transfer millions of dollars into an offshore account. Those are major Hollywood technology words – “protocols”, “offshore account”, “cyber”. Throw in a couple of “viruses” and “tracing the signal” and you’ve got technophobic bingo.
3. The Net
Identity theft has been in the news more and more often in the past few years. Every local news network loves a story about a well-to-do housewife/blue collar worker whose life was torn asunder simply because they scanned their debit card in the wrong machine or answered the wrong e-mail. Worse, the recent Russian hacking of the DNC proves the Internet is capable of derailing the democratic process.
The Net is the quintessential Internet scare film. Sandra Bullock plays Angela Bennett, a woman whose social and work interactions are almost exclusively online. She even – get this – orders pizza online! After being mugged while on vacation – during which the attacker made off with her purse and a mysterious floppy disc – she finds her entire life erased by cyberterrorists plotting to gain access to government programs through a backdoor security system. The Net furthers its 90s street cred by casting Dennis Miller in a dramatic role and, as they do in all his films, kill him off.
2. You’ve Got Mail
Sure, it’s a romantic comedy based off of the heartwarming pen pal comedy The Shop Around the Corner with Jimmy Stewart. It updates the plot of the original to cash in on AOL product placement and reunites Sleepless in Seattle co-stars Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. This time around, Hanks plays a smarmy book megastore owner trying to shut down Ryan’s mom and pop bookstore. Secretly, online, they’re actually in love with one another.
It gets creepy when Hanks realizes Ryan is his online soulmate, and then proceeds to systematically torture her, ultimately shutting down her business and manipulating her into embracing both him and his big box store ethos. He’s downright devious. Tom Hanks debuted in a slasher flick called He Knows You’re Alone as a potential suspect/victim, yet he’s somehow never creepier than in You’ve Got Mail. There is no number of sentimental Harry Nilsson songs that can undo all the wrong.
Recently, on CNN, while discussing the implications of Russia’s alleged hack into the DNC, the anchor spoke to a so-called hacker via satellite. Just to clear up any doubts of his hacking abilities, he made sure that a poster of the 1995 thriller Hackers was prominently placed behind him.
Johnny Lee Miller and a very young Angelina Jolie play rival hackers who uncover Plague’s (Fisher Stevens) plot to unleash a dangerous virus in an oil tanker companies software. Soon they’re on the run from a less-than-menacing Stevens and the Secret Service.
Hackers has become a bit of a cult classic – a so-bad-it’s-good cyberpunk film where everyone has names like Zero Cool, Phreak, Crash Override, Acid Burn, and the Plague. They’re so hardcore their primary mode of transportation is rollerblades. In the 90s, that meant you had serious ‘tude.