I just returned from a special theater screening of War Games—quite possibly the only good film Hollywood has ever produced about computers, computer nerds, or hacker culture. Shockingly, the movie, which was first released in 1983, holds up quite well, despite the use of archaic hardware (acoustic couplers and vocoder boxes), a laughable sentient military supercomputer, and an occasional lapse into typical Hollywood lingo.
The abundance of 8-inch floppy disks also gave people in the theater a laugh, as did the fact that characters were practically chain-smoking throughout the entire movie. Our biggest laugh came when the machine running the projector crashed—it displayed a Windows 2000 Start Menu, sending the nerd collective into hysterics—but none of the showing’s pervasive air of yestertech could take away from the fact that War Games remains awesome. It was well-researched, authentic, and sometimes downright prescient. After all, the main premise of the movie is about people dialing into military networks using modems. Who would have thought that just five years after the movie’s release, the military-focused ARPANET would be opened up to commercial interests, and very soon after that, the Internet as we know it would be born.
After the show, I lingered in the lobby with my fellow sweaty nerds and reminisced about good hacker movies. Well, we tried to, anyway. Aside from The Matrix (which was about a nerd but shares more DNA with Hong Kong martial arts flicks than anything else), there haven’t been any good films that explore the geekiest depths of computing—ever. Think about it for a minute: Hackers was at best laughable, a blatant attempt to capitalize on a legitimate underground phenomenon. Even movies that first appear to add a promising element of nerdom always end up doing something dumb, like tarnishing a tense computer-based drama with idiotic and unusable (but oh so very sexy) 3D interfaces. Yes, I’m talking about the IRIX 3D filesystem featured in Jurassic Park.
Where War Games showed a likeable kid who hacked simply because he wanted a peek at new games, the other movies portray computer nerds as socially inept at best. At worst, they paint computer nerds as dysfunctional, “let the world burn” anarchist types. Over the last 10 years, I’ve met thousands of people who, like me, describe themselves as computer nerds, but I’ve yet to meet a single anarchist hacker. Maybe those guys are all holed up in their moms’ basements, but my hunch is they’re just another fictional stereotype, manufactured by Hollywood to explain anything it fears or doesn’t understand.
I want to see some more good movies about people like me, computer nerds. Have I missed any forgotten classics? Is there anything I need to bump to the top of my Netflix queue? Let me know!