In Defense of Movies’ Ham-Handed Portrayals of Computer Code – Slate

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This article is part of a series on the most consequential lines of code in history. Read about 36 bits of software that have changed the world. 

In an opening scene of the 1995 movie Hackers, one of the titular hackers, Dade, tires of watching some racist blowhard on his local television channel. So he calls the security guard and impersonates his way into the station’s control system to change the playback tape to an episode of The Outer Limits.

Today, the scene looks beyond ridiculous. The many screens at the TV station are filled with an inexplicable snakeskin pattern. The control system has an inscrutable and unhelpful looping animation of the tape-switching machines. Dade’s terminal features four columns of text flying by rapidly, with the occasional purposeless large typographic symbol tucked in, and it looks like he may have taped strips of colored film onto his monitor for … reasons? All this computer work looks like the opposite of code. And this wasn’t a movie where technology played some set-dressing role. This was—if the title is to be believed—a movie about hacking.

Screengrab from Hackers of someone writing code on a computer.
Screengrab from Hackers of someone writing code on a computer.

Hackers

Screengrab from Hackers.

It may seem laughable, but mocking Hackers today is too easy. For eight years and some change I’ve reviewed technology in sci-fi films on my website Sci-Fi Interfaces, and I wouldn’t dismiss this scene as nonsense. Graphics are only part of the story. Maybe it’s the interface, or the interactions, or how well it fits human cognition, but it’s worth spending time to look past ham-handed portrayals of coding to see if there’s something else that’s valuable there (and even to question whether it really deserves ridicule in the first place).

Consider:

• Lex in Jurassic Park saying “It’s a UNIX system. I know this.” Silly? Not if you look at the screen. What was being shown was a Silicon Graphics 3D File System Navigator for IRIX, based on Unix, so it’s not as stupid as people think.

• Cypher in The Matrix “watching code” as dripping green rain characters: Seems ridiculous, but anyone watching an expert play a video game can be confounded at the player’s ability to detect and react to signals that are inscrutable to nonplayers.

• David in WarGames phreaking his biology class grade from an F to a B: actually a pretty realistic depiction of phone hacking and lax school administration security in the 1980s.

Don’t get me wrong: Sometimes mockery is deserved. I spent quite a number of posts mocking the interfaces in the wretched Star Wars Holiday Special from 1978. (Tape cassettes glued to airline seats! Spaceship doors that are less secure than modern airplane hatches! Rebellion phones that rat out rebels!) But even amid that dreck, there are one or two interfaces that are actually, accidentally, pretty good. It’s only when you commit to looking at a movie as a movie rather than a documentary or a how-to video that you can get to some useful insights.

Movies are a construction, and any code that appears in it is as constructed as the rest.

It helps to understand that technology in film is more often meant to be seen rather than read. Since most of the Hackers audience in 1995 wouldn’t recognize good code from ancient Greek, it is enough for the filmmakers to show something that conveys the idea of programming and move on. The audience sees text scrolling on-screen and thinks, “Ah yes. That guy must be programming. I wonder what he’s up to?” And then they use the rest of the cues in the scene to piece together that he’s kind of changing the channel in a badass computer-y sort of way. The point is not the actual polymorphic algorithms he might be using to avoid detection, but rather what the scene does mean about his character and to the story.

Sure, it’s not realistic. But when you’re watching a movie, you’re not bothered by the fact that there’s a camera in this character’s private residence, or that by observing you may be a party to committing illegal acts. Or that time passes differently on-screen than it does in real life. Movies are a construction, and any code that appears in it is as constructed as the rest. It’s selective blindness to be bothered by this one narrative convention amid all the others. There is, admittedly, a threshold past which a movie flouts believability, but in 1995, Hackers’ screen nonsense probably went unnoticed by most in the audience. I’d argue that while computer literacy keeps improving, few people in even today’s audience would be any wiser.

If moviemakers were to spend the time to actually get the code right on the screen, or even just make it look like well-formatted code, that might buy credibility with maybe an additional 2 percent of their intended audience. And then they have to spend some extra time narratively to show that code. To let you inspect it. To read it. And that might bore the pants off of the rest of the audience. Filmmakers that can do both (See: Trinity hacking into a power grid in The Matrix: Reloaded) have my respect, but I try not to get too bent out of shape when they don’t.

Mockery is easy but cheap. After all, Dade was doing hacking when he called the security guard. Exploiting people’s humanity to breach security is called social engineering, and it is still the biggest problem facing security professionals today. So, turns out, once you get past the surface, that scene is not that dumb after all.

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