A belated Happy Birthday to the Internet – from the movies

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

The Net, the Web, the World-wide Web, the Internet, the Information Highway, Cyberspace…

I could keep going but, as someone once said, the Eskimos have a hundred words for snow. Or something like that.

Anyway, the Web recently turned 25, so attention must be paid, as Arthur Miller once wrote. (Question: How many words did he have for ex-wife Marilyn Monroe?)

My hands-down favorite Internet movie is: “The Social Network,” which has cemented an, um, unkind version of Mark Zuckerberg in the public mind forever, thanks to Aaron Sorkin’s dead-on script, David Fincher’s dead-on direction and Jesse Eisenberg’s dead-on…let’s switch it up and say uncanny…performance.

The thing about Internet movies is, there are so many of them. You could say “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is an Internet movie. Or “You’ve Got Mail.”

Speaking of which, you can almost chart the development of Web technology through the movies. I don’t just mean “2001’s’ HAL, probably the most famous computer in cinematic history, but also, “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes,” a 1969 Disney flick, starring Kurt Russell (yes, Snake Plissken himself) as a college student who accidentally becomes a human computer.

You can go even further back, to “Desk Set,” a 1957 romantic comedy starring Spencer Tracy as a computer expert and Katharine Hepburn as the head of a TV network’s research department.

He believes his computer, EMARAC (Electromagnetic Memory And Research Arithmetical) will be the perfect complement to her work. She sees it as her replacement.  Geez, I never realized how prescient this movie is. EMARAC, by the way, is roughly the size of a Studebaker.  Maybe a bit bigger.

At any rate, here are a trio of computer movies that aren’t as old as “Desk Set,” but may have been overlooked among the younger set (say, the cubicle set or the open-office set, as opposed to the desk set).

WARGAMES: Actually almost everyone knows this movie, I think. Which makes it even more important that I mention it. Released in1983, the film asks: what would happen if a computer whiz-kid (a very young Matthew Broderick) inadvertently hacked into our country’s missile defense system? Remember, this is 1983; I’m not even sure if either Edward Snowden or Julian Assange were even born yet.

Anyway, the most obvious answer, the movie says, is World War III.  Director John Badham uses the very things he’s warning us against (blipping lights, flashing screens, very cool for that time) to lure us in. “WarGames” is admittedly a nostalgia piece now; it was a bit message-minded and transparently manipulative when it first came out. Still, there’s something irresistible about our resourceful hero and his plucky sidekick/girlfriend (Ally Sheedy) who firmly believe the fate of the earth shouldn’t be sealed by button-happy Cold Warriors or computers that would willingly wear out their software playing games no one can win.  Eerie, isn’t it?

THE NET:  Not as popular as it should’ve been when it was released theatrically in1995 because, 1), Sandra Bullock wasn’t as well-known as she is now (despite a co-starring role in “Speed”) and 2) most computer geeks didn’t want to watch a girl as, well, a computer geek. She is excellent as an isolated nerd (who just happens to be gorgeous) who specializes in troubleshooting tricky viruses.

When she stumbles across a program linked to a top-secret high-tech conspiracy, she finds herself on her own and on the run. The director, interestingly, is Irwin Winkler who, at the time, was better known for movies he’d produced (“Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas”) than movies he’d directed (“Guilt By Suspicion,” anyone?)

However, “The Net” was a step in the right direction. This is a taut, fast-moving thriller, smart and self-confident, whose inevitable lapses are simply endemic to the genre. Okay, it’s more Grisham than Hitchcock, but what isn’t? And these days, Grisham’s works are a gold standard compared to most so-called “thrillers.”

Bullock is great as a babe with brains. Also, guts, humor and an endearing stubborn streak. Definitely worth downloading (and yes, that’s Fox’s Dennis Miller in a former incarnation).

SNEAKERS:  The neat-o movie of the year. Well, if the year were 1992. The Golden Boy of the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and even ‘90s tries to stick his toe in this new-fangled hacker stuff. Ok, so it may look dated now — and not necessarily in a nostalgic way, like “WarGames.”

Still, with it with its giddy plot twists and nifty gizmos, this entertaining comedy caper is like the best-ever episode of the original “Mission Impossible” TV series (How was anyone to know then that Tom Cruise would co-opt the title for a very different series of blockbusters?). Redford plays the head of a rag-tag team of techno-whizzes who specialize in infiltrating security systems. His gang includes — this is a head-trip down Memory Lane — Dan Aykroyd as a conspiracy nerd; Sidney Poitier as a former CIA agent; River Phoenix (yes) as a teen hacker and David Strathairn (a John Sayles regular, probably now best-known for her portrayal of Edward R. Murrow in ‘Goodnight, and Good Luck”) as a blind audio genius.

Their government-mandated mission is to steal a mysterious black box (a classic Hitchcock McGuffin). Full of what were then state-of-the-art fake-outs and counter-culture humor (which I still miss) the movie is one of those pre-programmed Hollywood flicks designed to hit all the right buttons. For me it’s everything mindless entertainment should be. But it tanked at the box office and now, well, hard to tell how it’s aged.

If nothing else, it’s more than a little chilling to see Phoenix who would be dead a year later. “Sneakers’ was his next-to-last movie. His last was “The Thing Called Love,” which, to bring this kind of full circle, offered a young Sandra Bullock in one of her first big roles.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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