Weekend Roundtable: Dumbest Use of Computers in Movies & TV

When it comes to the depiction of computers or the internet in movies and TV, Hollywood screenwriters almost universally have no concept at all of what computers do or how they work. Pretty much any time you see a computer in a movie or TV show, it does something ridiculous, illogical or flagrantly impossible. In today’s Roundtable, we take a look at some of the most laughable examples of stupid computer nonsense ever portrayed on screen.

Luke Hickman

For the longest time, the only computers that I’d ever owned were PCs. I was thoroughly surprised when I got my first Mac and learned that my external hard drive would not function on it. (The drive had a PC-only formatting, so it had read-only functionality on the Mac.) If a hard drive’s factory setting could only work with one operating system, how in the hell is the virus that the Fresh Prince and the Fly upload to the alien mothership in ‘Independence Day‘ supposed to work. It’s not only laughable that the virus works on this new OS, but that our two unlikely heroes are able to understand the language that pops up on the alien dashboard. And how does one connect a Earth PC to an alien system? Is there an app for that?

M. Enois Duarte

By far, the worst use of a computer is in the hacking-crime actioner ‘Swordfish‘, a ridiculously dumb movie about supposed tech wizards performing a perfect bank robbery. It would have been one thing if the filmmakers simply stuck to scenes of characters sitting behind computers, tapping randomly on keyboards. But no, director Dominic Sena just had to point the camera directly at the computer screen to show what the so-called hackers were typing, which is actually a bunch of nonsensical codes, numbers and totally random words that mean nothing at all. It clearly demonstrated how very little knowledge the filmmakers possessed about computers and how the internet works. It was laughably bad then, and it remains hilariously stupid today.

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

All the way back in 1993 when ‘Jurassic Park‘ roared into theaters, I didn’t know any better. A bug-eyed Lex Murphy cooed, “It’s a UNIX system. I know this,” and I rolled right along with it. As far as I knew, computers running UNIX obviously had file systems that you navigate by running around in 3D space like some kind of ‘Wolfenstein’ knockoff.

It wasn’t too long after seeing ‘Jurassic Park’ for the first time that I started getting heavily into UNIX. Close to twenty years later, you’ll hardly ever see me at a computer without a bunch of PuTTY sessions open. Still, this is what ‘Jurassic Park’ had me expect:

…and this is my sad reality:

To be fair, that is a real file browser in ‘Jurassic Park’, although I don’t know anyone who actually used “fsn,” and I’m not sure how a 14-year-old or whatever would know so much about a cumbersome novelty that only ran on exotic Silicon Graphics workstations. (Heck, even when I spent a semester in front of SGI gear for a 3D programming course in college, we never used anything like that.) If you have velociraptors breathing down your neck, you’re way better off hacking away at the command line instead.

Brian Hoss

I’m going to focus in on this screengrab from 1994’s ‘Clear and Present Danger‘:

The coding problem presented begins as a request for a “way beyond birthdays” user password, and ends with shadow access to said user’s terminal. (At least it would be shadow access if not for Petey forgetting to explain to Ryan that he needed to wait due to an instant “User 422 Logged On” message, which in movie fashion is for the best since Ritter is deleting files, or at least filenames.) Most of the characters on Petey’s screen are already there when Petey starts writing his special program, which seems to be built on some arbitrary containers and unrelated function outlines.

While the ensuing scene with Ritter and Ryan is great fun and part of a good yarn, Petey and his special program are as trope-worthy as anything I’ve ever seen. (I do still like the movie.) With that example as a basis, it’s no wonder that movies and shows have exploding computers, 60-second hacks, and endless instantly-parsed databases of all conceivable information.

Junie Ray

Looking back to 1957, ‘Desk Set‘ is a lovely movie that shines with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn’s chemistry and witty repartee. However, the elephant in the room is a super computer that Tracy’s character has built to provide reference information traditionally handled by the research department headed by Hepburn’s character. Looking at it today, it seems silly that the staff were so concerned for their jobs, because we know that the technology was decades away. Heck, even though you can search just about anything on the web these days, there’s still lots of work to be done for computer programs to understand questions and return accurate results. (Siri, I’m talking to you.)

Actually, kids today probably wouldn’t get this mistake because they’d assume that computers back then could do all the stuff they do today and were just bigger. They’d probably be more confused by the big cabinets that held all those index cards.

Jason Bovberg (Connected Home Media, Author)

The thing that really causes me to grit my teeth into calcium gravel are the incessant noises that computers make in movies. You know what I mean. Whenever a character types or clicks anything into a desktop PC or laptop or super mainframe, the gestures are always accompanied by ridiculous aural punctuation, from beeps to blips to tweets to twits. The first example that comes to mind is actually from one of my favorite films of all time: Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien‘, in which the intelligent onboard operating system Mother sounds off with a harsh bray of electronic sound after any inputted keystroke. Other examples are everywhere. Even James Cameron’s sequel ‘Aliens’ is guilty of this audio crime. (At least the sound effect is less abrasive there.)

These unnecessary bleeps and bloops are so prevalent in movies that when I come across a film that doesn’t resort to them, it’s like a gift from the gods. “You’ve trusted me as a viewer to understand that in reality, data input on a computer is mostly silent! Hallelujah!” So knock it off, Hollywood! We know what you’re up to, and we’re smarter than you think we are. We actually use computers every day. We know what they sound like.

Josh Zyber

I can think of so many good examples for this that I hardly know where to begin.

‘Swordfish’ (already mentioned above) – “I have been told that the best crackers in the world can do this in 60 minutes. Unfortunately, I need someone who can do it in 60 seconds,” sneering villain John Travolta says to Hugh Jackman, regarding hacking the most highly encrypted government server on Earth. He points a gun to Jackman’s head – while a slutty girl gives Jackman a blowjob for an extra distraction – and begins counting. Jackman furiously mashes away at two or three computer keyboards – while simultaneously maintaining his erection, of course – until one second remains and then… voila!… all of the Top Secret files from the CIA, NSA, FBI and every other governmental acronym agency are available at Travolta’s fingertips. Right, because computer hacking is just that easy, and typing faster makes the hacker’s intrusion programs work faster. Give me a fucking break.

Mission: Impossible‘ – Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) needs to make contact with a mysterious agent going by the name “Max,” who can only be reached via USENET for some reason. With only a reference to a Bible verse to go by, he peruses religious newsgroups and sends dozens of emails to the nonsensical address “[email protected] 3:14.” Posting private emails in a public newsgroup? Nothing about this scene bears any resemblance to how USENET or email actually work.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines‘ – The evil Terminatrix cyborg spreads a computer virus that allows her to take over any computer in the world. She can even remotely control cars and construction equipment she sees on the street. Wait, what? Although it’s true that most cars today have computers in their engine blocks, those computers can’t (or at least couldn’t in 2003, when the story is set) turn the steering wheel or press down the gas and brake pedals to drive.

The Running Man‘ – In this dystopian future, cutting-edge computer hacking consists of typing the same single-line DOS command into a terminal repeatedly until it finally takes.

GoldenEye‘ – Everything that irritating comic relief programmer Boris (Alan Cumming) does with computers, including his “Spike” virus program, is complete nonsense.

‘The Lawnmower Man’ – This whole movie, from start to finish. Moronic.

‘Harsh Realm’ – The premise of this short-lived sci-fi series from ‘X Files’ creator Chris Carter involves a Virtual Reality military combat simulation program that was created “using the 1990 census, satellite cartography and other classified data,” forming a perfect replica of the real world down to every man, woman and child. Apparently, this extends to ridiculously specific details, such as when the main character visits the bombed-out shell of his parents’ house and finds his favorite childhood snowglobe. I bet if he looked for them, all the porn magazines he hid in his closet as a teen and never told anybody about would be there as well. Computer-generated “Virtual Characters,” based on the likenesses of real people, even seem to share their real world counterparts’ thoughts and memories. Who knew Big Brother was watching so closely, and could read minds?

Finally, although we already mentioned this scene a few weeks ago, I had to post it again because it represents the absolute nadir of computer idiocy:

What’s the most ridiculous use of a computer you’ve seen in a movie or TV? Tell us in the Comments.

44 comments

  1. I didn’t get a chance to submit mine in time, so here’s mine:

    In SUPERMAN III, Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) is supposed to be a computer genius, but if you watch what he’s doing to computers, he’s basically just typing “LIST” into a BASIC program, to make the screen scroll with text. This guy’s a genius! Well, at least smarter than the screenplay writer for this movie, that’s for sure.

    • At least the matrix was intentionally vague about how much time had past, thus making any alien type computer hardware and coding at least plausible. Especially since it had been written by SPOILER sentient AI’s.

  2. Mr Apollo

    Die Hard 4. I can’t stand how all of the computers in the world are connected and controlled just by one computer and person. Of course just one click away to be able to ruin the whole world.

    • Ari

      Uh, Die Hard 4 was actually one of the more realistic examples of portrayals of hacking in a movie. Are you confusing that movie with some other movie?

      • Gregory Sandoval

        Uh, no. No it is not. It is utterly implausible. I can usually suspend belief on these sorts of plots, but in this case the mangled techno-jargon was so bad it was jarring. I kept having to suppress laughing out loud in the theater. Kind of surprised this missed the staff’s picks…

        • Ari

          Gregory. Sorry, I cannot go into details but based on my experience in certain government related industries, it is not as implausible as you might think. Again, I cannot talk about it. I hope that the government has made changes to improve their infrastructure security recently.

          Have you been under a rock? Did you miss what happened with Anonymous and their intrusion into various government systems? Did you completely miss the Heartbleed story?

          • Please stop with your “I could tell you but I’d have to kill you…” crap. If hacking was as easy as movies pretend it is there would be far worse things happening than already do. But he was talking about bad writing more than anything else. Heartbleed was a bug not a hack, hackers exploit bugs. Don’t pretend it’s magic. And just because the government is too damn cheap to clean house and properly implement security doesn’t make Die Hard 4 any less of a farce, and the computer stuff was only one of it’s problems.

          • Ari

            Tim, I think you are a bit confused. I think you have a reading comprehension issue. I never said that hacking was easy. What I was talking about the method of hacking taking place on screen. The scene where Justin Long’s character encrypts everything is a bit unrealistic in how it was portrayed but you could use a program like true crypt to encrypt key portions of a set of files to make it completely unreadable without decrypting it first or at least make it near impossible to search programatically. Imagine encrypting the encryption key file for a database server with true crypt. Now you all of a sudden have no access to the database if the contents were encrypted.

            As for the rest of the hacking, they at least used known tools in a realistic way and only sped up the breaking in parts for the sake of the flow of the story on screen.

            You would be surprised by how primitive the systems are for certain large entities in your country. It is both scary and sad at the same time. I have been in the “business” that I am in for about 15 years now.

          • Josh Zyber
            Author

            There’s a considerable difference between what real hackers were able to achieve by exploiting Heartbleed and what the villains in Die Hard 4 were magically able to do when they took over every single computer in the Eastern United States with a couple of keystroke commands on a laptop.

  3. Junie

    Boris! He was such a delicious Bond character perfectly written and acted to make you want to just punch him in the face. I thought about the James Bond movies and all of them have ridiculously implausible technology, so I just assumed we all suspend disbelief for those movies. The most common one I notice in spy movies/shows is the bad guy computer dossier file with the dumb animations for the headshot photo or green screen text that appears line by line.

  4. Pedram

    Weird Science. They actually made a dream girl with a computer (well, and also by hacking into some mainframe over a dial-up connection and also some voodoo). I didn’t really care though, because the movie was so awesome.

  5. Spoiler alert for the new Captain America:

    I was laughing so hard (in a good way) at Captain America: The Winter Soldier when Arnim Zola makes his cameo appearance as a consciousness inhabiting a Cold War era, underground reel-run computer complex. It was gorgeously absurd, and it beat Transcendence to the punch by a few weeks.

  6. I must agree with Jurassic Park. Not only did Lex know UNIX (pretty sure Linux was not mainstream by the time this movie came out), she knew Silicon Graphics, and was able to navigate what must have been an extreamely complex directory structure and probably undescriptive file names. But here is the kicker – 1) even on modern PCs, Operating systems take a while to boot up. 2) with it being a UNIX file system, wouldn’t Lex have needed a login, or was the system completely open?

    I think my favorite is any television show using image enhancement. I love that Red Dwarf spoofed it.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6i3NWKbBaaU

  7. Bill

    No one is mentioning TV? This past season we’ve been treated to both the fantasy and the reality. On one side there is the fantasy of shows such as Intelligence, The Blacklist, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and others where computer connections are instantaneous and the hero solves the problem with just a few touches or mouse clicks or keystrokes in a literally true “deus ex machina” fashion. On the other there is the tragic reality of Malaysian Airlines where after over one month all the computer/digital imaging/satellite technology in the world has failed to find even a single piece of the missing plane. It seems we still have a way to go to emulate/duplicate the magic that we see on TV.

  8. Thulsadoom

    On the complete flipside, one of the best computer programmer movies around is the under-appreciated Antitrust. Most stuff in that is either quite accurate or at least as near-as-damn-it for the story line that you can forgive it. As a computer programmer, I remember a whole bunch of us watching it at uni and being pleasantly surprised after rubbish like Swordfish. 🙂 Anyone think of other good ‘Computer’ movies? Another personal favourite is of course War Games, which while still unrealistic in many aspects (though perhaps not as much as you’d think) at least presents it all in a very plausible way, not too far removed from reality. 🙂

  9. Mark B

    I didn’t have time to read every post, but did anyone mention Hackers? I know that movie was made in the early 90s, but after taking some basic computer science classes in high school I realized that no techno music plays in the background whenever you’re doing computer hacker stuff.

    • William Henley

      This is unrelated, but your post made me think of The Matrix. I mean, Neo sure does type slow for a hacker, for one thing. And what is up with his screen at the begining of the movie? And the whole first part of the movie did not make sense to me – I mean, they are hacking the Matrix from inside of the Matrix with technology from inside of the Matrix.

  10. Josh Zyber
    Author

    I forgot to mention ‘Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home’ in my entry.

    When Scotty needs to illustrate the impossibly-complex formula for a substance called “Transparent Aluminum,” about 10 seconds of mashing away at an Apple IIe keyboard gives him a beautifully-animated 3D rendering. Imagine if a scientist from today was transported back to the 17th Century and had to calculate pi to the 100th decimal in the same amount of time, using only an abacus.

    • William Henley

      Yes, but did anyone ever take this movie seriously? I think this was the only Star Trek movie that was more of a comedy than a Sci-Fi movie.Well, you might be able to call Final Frontier a comedy, but that is just because it is so bad its funny.

      • Was about to say the same thing. Star Trek was not Asimov level Sci Fi, it was more about the humanity of the characters. My friends and I still quote his attempts at speech recognition to this day. That scene is pretty darned funny.

  11. The most egregious offender is ENEMY OF THE STATE.

    Some government spooks are inspecting a lo-fi store surveillance recording, and proceed to use their computer sorcery to rotate a still frame as if it were a live, free-moving camera. Apparently this 3-D imaging is SO powerful, it can defy the very space-time continuum.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3EwZQddc3kY

  12. The Stallone/Banderas action adventure: Assassins.

    Both of these highly skilled, best in the business assassins use early Apple laptops, and are also both highly proficient with one-handed typing. Yeah, sure buddy. Typing accurately with two hands is hard enough, but these guys just let the text fly with one hand as if it’s something all assassins are taught in assassin school.

  13. NJScorpio

    First…the movie ‘Hackers’. Just, everything about it. It’s soooo good, yet sooooooo bad.

    Second…’Terminator: Salvation’. So that machines did take over in their war against humans. They go ahead and build factories and such. Of course, with all this new stuff being build by machines, for machines, they include keyboards and monitors so that humans they are warring with can come in and screw things up.

    Earlier T-100 models could interface with computers via their finger/key. Since when did the logical machines decide that direct, high speed, discrete communication between machines isn’t good enough. They should require fingers and optical devices for machine that may use that terminal. Because, hey, let’s do it the human way.

  14. Boston007

    ‘Independence Day‘ by far. That scene was just the icing on the cake on a dumb, idiotic movie I couldn’t wait to be over. This is when I realized America was going in the shitter by how popular this movie was, and still is.

    Everyone else mentioned great examples.

  15. Josh you can pull a scene like the one from NCIS from any of a dozen shows and movies over the years. It’s a lame technique but there are far more people who know nothing about computers than do, even today. Those are the targets for such scenes.

  16. Chris B

    I always thought it was dumb how Joe Pantoliano’s character in the Matrix is telling Neo about the green rambling code and says something like “I don’t even see the code anymore, I just see blonde, brunette, redhead”. Give me a break, I don’t give a shit how long you’ve been underground in that ship…you don’t equate green, sterile computer text to a hot chick. That’s an example of a screenwriter using hyperbole in the worst way.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      The thing that gets me about The Matrix is Cypher’s secret meeting with Agent Smith inside the Matrix. The movie has previously established that once you enter the Matrix, the only way out is to have an operator pull you out via one of the magic “hard line” phones. So how did Cypher manage to get himself back out if no one knew he was there?

      That’s more of a simple plot hole than computer idiocy, however. I can’t really claim that any of the movie’s depiction of hacking or programming makes much sense, though.

      • William Henley

        I just always assumed that the agents helped him get out – ie cut the connection or something.

        Just had a thought…. aren’t all humans hardwired into the matrix? Then why the heck do the machines even have it where you can broadcast a pirate signal wirelessly into the matrix?

        My whole world is shattered! There are plot holes in the Matrix! NNNNNNNOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!

  17. Timcharger

    By the Old Gods and the New, I swear to Valar Spoilerghulis.
    (All men who spoil must die).

    With the site redesign, it’s getting more difficult to avoid the spoilers in
    the Bonus View section. The blog articles are larger on the screen’s real
    estate. The written article starts right in on the front page. The user
    comments are more prominent and previewed on the top right of the
    screen.

    I don’t have premium cable, and wait for the blu-ray’s release.

    Valar Spoilerghulis!

    (Yes, this is deliberately commented in the wrong blog.)

  18. Star Trek IV and Scotty inputting the formula for transparent aluminum merely by pressing a bunch of random keys on the keyboard. It was an old Mac at that, so much of the following doesn’t make sense as I doubt the software existed. Where did the molecular formula program originate and how did Scotty even know where to find it, and to input the formula. And it’s funny that once he put in the formula the the computer computed, it knew exactly what the substance was, lol.

  19. Josh Zyber
    Author

    Elysium is currently running on the Starz network. That definitely needs to get added to this list.

    Let me see if I have the plot straight. The bad guys have a top secret computer reboot program stored in William Fichtner’s brain, ‘Johnny Mnemonic’ style. Then Matt Damon takes it. The program is locked with an encryption that will kill whoever holds it if it’s removed. Yet anyone can tap into the brain computer and look at the data. They just can’t extract it without killing him. But if they do extract it and kill him, they can use the program free and clear without any further encryption whatsoever. Why do they need to extract it anyway? Why can’t they just copy the data when they tap the brain?

    Makes no sense at all.

      • William Henley

        And even if you overlooked the plot holes, the story sucked. I mean, i get the idea that one place is better economically than another, and medical facilities on those areas vary – shoot you see that here even in the same city. But to deny someone medical care just because they were not born in the right place, I cannot see humanity reducing themselves to that. At least not a whole planet. We have come too far in the past 100 years to reduce ourselves to that.

        • Josh Zyber
          Author

          This is especially bad in the final scene, where the rebels launch a whole bunch of shuttles down to Earth, already all loaded up with hundreds of the magical medical beds. Basically, the rich people had all these spare beds ready to go, but refused to send them down to Earth just to be dicks. I mean, at the very least, you’d expect them to charge for medical services and make themselves even richer. Nope, they didn’t even want to make any money off them. They were just hoarding the technology solely to be assholes.

          • Chris B

            Not to mention the fact of what’s going to happen when all the people from Earth arrive on Elysium. Are we supposed to believe everybody is just going to form an orderly line and wait patiently for their medical treatment? Hell no! It’s gonna be total chaos! They’ll be rioting and looting and pillaging, imagine how pissed the inhabitants of earth would be at those of Elysium! They’d be pissed at them for keeping them in the slums and denying them the good life…it would be a bloodbath!

          • Chris B

            One of the most infuriating scenes in that movie is when Matt Damon get’s blasted with Radiation. First of all, they never even explain why they’re irradiating those mechs at all.
            Im guessing we’re supposed to beleive it’s some kind of heat treatment but there’s far cheaper and safer ways of achieveing the same results instead of radiology.

            Secondly, Damon willingly CRAWLS INSIDE the goddamn compartment that he knows is routinely blasted with lethal doses of said radiation. People will argue that his job was on the line but c’mon…would you crawl in there?

            So once he’s inside, the machine mysteriously starts up and he’s trapped. There would almost certainly be an emergency shut-off switch inside the compartment just in case someone was to become trapped inside. And if there wasn’t one inside, there sure as hell would be one on the outside of the machine. You know, so like the operator could SHUT-OFF the machine in the event of an EMERGENCY. As a pressure welder I’ve worked in industrial settings for years and practically every piece of equipment is designed to be able to be quickly shut off if need be. Whether it’s a 20 ton crane or a small power tool, but nope….all Damon and his buddy can do is look at each other and panic.

            And after he gets hit with this supposedly lethal dose that’s going to kill him in 5 days, he has zero visible signs of radiation sickness. No sores or burns, he’s not vomiting or lethargic…he looks perfectly healthy!

            All these problems in just the first 15 minutes alone. I could go on and on about that movie. It really felt like it was insulting the audience’s intelligence. Like Bloomkamp was so hot off of D9 he wrote a rough first draft of the screenplay and it was green-lit before anyone even read it and realized it was Swiss cheese. So endeth the rant.

          • Josh Zyber
            Author

            Even if he absolutely needed to crawl in there out of fear of losing his job, you’d think that he’d prop the door open with a wrench or something to ensure that it couldn’t slam closed before he got out. What a dipshit. 🙂

          • Chris B

            Hahaha….yeah either prop it open with something solid or how about this…just turn the goddamn machine off before you climb in it. Seems like the simplest solution but noooooo….

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