All right, I’m in! Our favourite on-screen hackers, programmers and techies
Need a plot device? Bring in the IT experts. See how our understanding of tech evolved with pop-culture
In the ’80s… it was all just a game
In Tron (1982), Jeff Bridges played an arcade owner and computer hacker who was somehow kidnapped and dragged into a mainframe computer by a real-world software pirate called Master Control. Inside that virtual world, he’s forced to participate in gladiatorial-style games. It didn’t quite set the box office on fire, but did develop a cult following in the ’80s and ’90s.
In WarGames (1983), Matthew Broderick is one of those high-school dudes you might think is good for nothing, except he’s a computer genius. But when trying to break into a computer game company one day, he hacks into the US military programme’s AI system instead. He thinks he’s in a game, but his every move brings the real world closer to nuclear war. Intense and cheesy, it’s rooted in the ’80s idea that the Cold War was bad, but meddling with software could be worse.
By the ’90s… tech got a little evil
Ghost in the Machine (1993) saw a serial killer’s soul accidentally downloaded into an MRI machine. He then found new ways to kill, using computers and other household devices. The movie, starring Ted Marcoux, flopped. But the sense of suspense was novel at the time — how do you stop a machine?
In Hackers (1995), a gang of teens is breaking into computer systems trying to uncover an embezzling scheme. They’re falsely accused of planting a virus and must clear their names and save the day. It all seems absurdly simplistic today, but the film was among the first to build itself around how great kids are with tech.
In The Net (1995), Sandra Bullock had her identity stolen amid a cybercriminal conspiracy. Friends mysteriously died. Her records were erased. And fighting back was hard because she didn’t officially exist. This is one that has aged fairly well.
Enemy of the State (1998) offered an early glimpse of how those in power can twist data — security, banking, personal – to their own devious purposes. Poor Will Smith went out to buy lingerie but got involved in a mix-up with the National Security Agency, who’d killed a politician and were now after an incriminating tape that had ended up in his bag of gauzy unmentionables.
The Matrix (1999) questioned the nature of our reality in ways that only an audience at the turn of the millennium could have understood. Many had already experienced some kind of tech-driven alternate reality, so they could appreciate the shock to Mr Anderson / Neo (Keanu Reeves) — programmer by day and hacker by night — when he discovered that his world was a computer simulation, created and run by software that could bend reality. The Red Pill reference is now shorthand for accepting life-changing truths (especially tech-related ones). Or at least asking the real questions, like: Could our world be a computer simulation?
Through the ’00s… tech gets sexy
Live Free or Die Hard (2007): Three movies old, the Bruce Willis franchise finally took on tech. A former Department of Defense worker is plotting a large-scale cyber attack to disable the America’s digital economy. Detective John McClane is once again in the wrong place at the wrong time, except this time he has with him an ace hacker who can help him save the world in ways he can barely understand. Bruce Willis and Justin Long, easily a generation apart, made perfect crime-fighting baddies, as the good old-fashioned action franchise got a tech upgrade.
Untraceable (2008): Before Black Mirror, there was Diane Lane, an FBI officer hot in pursuit of a killer who was torturing his victims for the world to watch live. The clues were in the software, as always. Another marker of the world to come: The most vile content gets the most hits (even the comments from viewers sound much like the trolls and mansplainers of today).
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009 and 2011), aka Lisbeth Salander, can do what most coders only hope to. She can hack into personal computers, corporate accounts, government databases and even your garbage can — all without anyone knowing. This is why she’s the perfect aide for Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist who’s tracking down a missing girl, fearing for his life and trying to clear his name in a corporate investigation gone very very bad.
In the ’10s… a multi-layered view
Black Mirror (2011-2021): An anthology that taps into our growing unease with modern technology. Pick your fear: Immersive CGI sex, being kidnapped by someone who can access all your data, being resurrected as a hologram, uploading a dead person’s social media personality into a lookalike body, or being trapped forever in a sinister episode of Star Trek.
Blackhat (2015): Someone’s hacked into a nuclear power plant in Hong Kong and the Mercantile Trade Exchange in Chicago. And the US and China must work together to figure out who’s behind it all. They send a hacker to find a hacker. You don’t have to be a programmer to figure out what’s going on.
Halt and Catch Fire (2014-2017): Harking back to the programming boom of the ’80s, the drama about three tech mavericks trying to build a computer in Texas, is surprisingly easy to follow. As a bonus, a close look at women in tech and what they’re willing to sacrifice to hold on to the company they’ve founded.
Mr Robot (2015-2019): A computer genius who wants to overthrow the system, while staying in his hoodie, Elliot is a cybersecurity engineer and vigilante hacker with social anxiety disorder and clinical depression. His view of the world can’t really be trusted. But you can trust the code, say those in the know. The adventures are realistic and the tech goals, while lofty, are achievable.