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9/3/2014
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Michael Endler
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10 Cringe-Worthy Tech Moments In Movies

From a PowerBook that defeats alien spaceships to cyber terrorists who take over the US with a few keystrokes, Hollywood makes ridiculous tech gaffes. Which is the worst?

Occasionally, Hollywood releases a movie that expertly balances cinematic drama with technical accuracy, such as Apollo 13, or The Social Network. This is not an article about those sorts of movies.

When exotic technology hits the silver screen, audiences are pretty willing to suspend disbelief; after all, of the 10 highest-grossing films in US history, half revolve around alien races and interstellar travel. But when filmmakers get sloppy or overindulgent, even viewers in search of mindless, escapist entertainment can accept only so much. Some films disregard reality so thoroughly, viewers can't help but incredulously whisper "Really?" as laughable plot turns pile up.

These less-accurate movies are what we're here to discuss -- and, in a way, to celebrate. Some of the films we've listed are tough to defend, marred by tech mistakes so stupid they derail the entire film. Others create a "so bad it's good" vibe, while some still manage to be genuinely strong films despite their inaccuracies. Which movies fall into which category? We're got our favorites -- but let us know in the comments what you think, and whether we missed your favorite cinematic tech blunder.

Beware of spoilers!

1. Independence Day
Independence Day was a huge hit back in 1996; with almost 70 million tickets sold, it attracted more domestic theater-goers than all but seven films released in the 18 years since. Despite this popularity, the film's climax relies on one of the dumbest tech-related plot twists in movie history.

Jeff Goldblum helplessly tries to explain to Will Smith how he learned an alien programming language in only a few hours. (Source: Clevver Movies, YouTube)
Jeff Goldblum helplessly tries to explain to Will Smith how he learned an alien programming language in only a few hours.
(Source: Clevver Movies, YouTube)

Jeff Goldblum's character somehow creates a software virus that can make an alien mothership self-destruct. No earthling has ever seen this mothership, but that's a trivial concern. After all, Goldblum has access to a smaller alien craft that just inexplicably turned on for the first time in 30 years. That's evidently more than enough for a cinematic IT hero to work with. Amazingly, he accomplishes most of this with an Apple PowerBook. Perhaps the extraterrestrials program in Objective C?

2. Enemy of the State
Enemy of the State isn't the first movie in which characters can magically magnify images without losing any resolution. But the 1998 Will Smith thriller takes the concept to a new -- and stupefying -- level.

Just watch the above clip in which Jack Black takes a snippet of footage from a single security camera, uses it to miraculously create a 3D computerized model of the scene, and rotates the model to reveal "evidence" that was never actually recorded in the first place. Remarkably, his computer does all of this in real time. Black's character qualifies that the 3D rendering represents only the computer's "hypothesized" scene -- but that's just the film's way of imploring audiences not to think too hard.

3. The Dark Knight Rises
Director Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight films were insanely popular at the box office; among all movie trilogies, only the two Star Wars trilogies sold more domestic tickets. Given their visual grandeur, Nolan's films generally

Michael Endler joined InformationWeek as an associate editor in 2012. He previously worked in talent representation in the entertainment industry, as a freelance copywriter and photojournalist, and as a teacher. Michael earned a BA in English from Stanford University in 2005 ... View Full Bio
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Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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9/3/2014 | 7:18:11 PM
Re: Destroy the... monitor?
Susan, my guilty pleasures are no more defensible. ;) I watch more reality television than I should. I can mount a pretty enthusiastic defense of Snakes on a Plane. And though I make fun of Michael Bay at points in this article, The Rock is awesome, and I have more affection for Armageddon (another movie that easily could have made this list) than someone with a graduate degree in Cinema Studies should probably admit.

To be fair to the NCIS and CSI writers, some of them have implied in interviews that the tech ridiculousness is not only deliberate, but also part of the shows' appeal (at least for certain audiences).

That makes sense to me. We don't see most romantic comedies because they're realistic; we see them because they provide wish fulfillment. I think NCIS and CSI (and even shows like Sherlock on the BBC) appeal on that level, among others. When we want real-world justice, technology isn't always up to the task. There's something appealing about a universe in which computer super-agents can conquer almost any villain. And there are some theories of comedy that define amusement in part as the difference between a thing and its representation—another way in which these shows can be pretty entertaining.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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9/3/2014 | 7:04:22 PM
Re: "Mission: Impossible" = "Technology: Ridiculous"
I hadn't thought of noisy disk drives in Mission Impossible-- nice one!


Hackers is one of those movies seem to love or hate. While it seems anachronistic today, the over-the-top depiction of hacking actually appealed to some tech enthusiasts back when it was released. Even if the film wasn't particularly realistic, it's not like computer experts had been given many dramatic cinematic treatments before.

Some of the time people want the things they relate to be depicted with a certain amount of real-world fidelity in films. A movie like Zodiac (a really great film) is almost about such fidelity as much as it is about the crime itself. But other times, we (as a species, not just U.S. culture) also like to see things we can relate to exaggerated to operatic extremes. If a movie is set where a certain audience lives, for example, that audience will see the movie in disproportionate numbers, even if the movie is preposterous. The most recent Transformers movie actually grossed more money in China (where much of the film is set) than in North America. International share of box office has been growing, but this is still literally unprecedented for such a profitable movie; it suggests that audiences in China not only saw the movie once, as a curiosity, but multiple times, because it offered something that resonated with them. That speaks to the growth of China's middle class and shifts in global economies, but it also shows that people like seeing their daily existence depicted with cinematic bombast. I think some of the affection people have for Hackers comes from a similar place.

 
Susan_Nunziata
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Susan_Nunziata,
User Rank: Strategist
9/3/2014 | 6:52:17 PM
Re: Destroy the... monitor?
@Somedude8: good one, that always cracks me up too. And I'm so glad Michael threw in NCIS and CSI in here. Although I admit those are guilty pleasure TV shows for me, the tech stunts are truly utterly ridiculous, and I'm sure any forensics investigator would agree that the forensics stunts they pull on CSI espeically also defy all reality.
tka2013
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tka2013,
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9/3/2014 | 1:22:13 PM
"Mission: Impossible" = "Technology: Ridiculous"
An awful, awful movie in general, the silliest moment in the first "Mission: Impossible" had to be when Tom Cruise was hanging from the ceiling whilst copying a file to a blank disk in a safe room filled with microphones intended to trigger alarms at the slightest sound.  Recalling the noisy drives we had in 1996 when the movie was made, the guards should have been charging the room in the first 10 seconds, if not charging the room because of the laughter of the audience in the theater I was in.

And as laughable as the technical implausibilities were as displayed in every second of "Hackers" they were overshadowed by an even more ridiculous plot and the over the top acting by all concerned, though a special exemption should be made for Angelina Jolie whole stole every scene she appeared in one of her earliest film roles.
Reilly Kerr
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Reilly Kerr,
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9/3/2014 | 1:14:56 PM
Re: How Did You Do It?
You could have listed 1000s actually. I think the tech community is entirely too soft on Hollywood with its movie criticism of unrealistic technologies. But let's get even more basic. I bailed on the entire "Die Hard" series after seeing only the final half or so of the first one. A cigarette lighter brings down a leaky jet? Jet fuel is kerosene. Try lighting some on fire in cold, wet air and see if you even get warm. The plot conclusion is entirely the wrong place to ask someone to suspend their sense of disbelief. We've already had a hard enough time believing somebody could walk barefoot through shards of broken plate glass. 

For your next movie article may I suggest a list of the worst uses of the Einstein Escape Clause, wherein some Scientist/Authority-type claims Einstein said something that somehow validates whatever possibility or eventuality ahead. "Einstein's theory of relativity says your uncle could fall down the basement stairs when he trips on that singularity in the kitchen." 

/jdf
TerryB
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TerryB,
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9/3/2014 | 1:00:26 PM
No Sandra?
The Net was always my favorite in ridiculous tech. Not sure what was more unrealistic though: security software company who implemented a backdoor into every system it protected or Sandra Bullock as a super programmer in LA with no boyfriend.

Because we all work with tech people who look like Sandra or Brad Pitt, right?

Good article, Michael!
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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9/3/2014 | 12:58:42 PM
Re: How Did You Do It?
Indeed, there are hundreds (maybe thousands?) of movies that could easily have been part of this list. If you nitpick enough, relatively few movies fully pass technical muster.

Granted, I (and think many of us) could care less about the "reality" of on-screen tech; internal logic, even if fantastical, can be more important than real-world "realism" (e.g. the majority of Marvel movies). Moreover, as long as something "feels" real, that phenomenological experience is often more important than the accuracy of technical minutiae (e.g. I've heard physicists pick apart Gravity's errors, but on an experiential level, I don't think many viewers cared). Despite their tech flubs, I love several movies on this list-- not just for nostalgic appeal, but because they're genuinely good pieces of cinema.

I tried to pick a few infamous examples of bad tech in movies, a few less-known ones in which a tech plot hole is too big to ignore, a few in which the filmmakers really should have known better, and a few that are just silly. Not a comprehensive collection, by any means. For that, I don't think an online list would suffice; I'd need to write a couple books!

Any other particularly egregious examples of bad movie tech that some of your readers would have included?

 
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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9/3/2014 | 12:46:26 PM
Re: Sorry, Family
Good eye! ;)
majenkins
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majenkins,
User Rank: Ninja
9/3/2014 | 9:54:13 AM
How Did You Do It?
My question is how did you pick these 10 or 12 movies/shows to single out for attention? It seems to me, and my wife, that I hardly ever watch a movie or TV show without complaining about some technical thing that isn't correct or is totally out of the question.
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
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9/3/2014 | 9:45:29 AM
Re: Doesn't "War Games" Explain Ferris' Feat?
I love the scene in Ferris where the absent days disappear -- so who says Ferris can't war dial? I would bet on Ferris vs. a green screen.
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