Top 10 fun computing films

Top 10 fun computing films

To honour John Hughes, we've listed tech movies that give you all an excuse to sit down with a DVD or two and enjoy tech in the movies..

Yesterday the news came through that John Hughes had died and it was immediately obvious what this week's top 10 would be about.

Shaun was barely toddling when Hughes first started to make an impact on the screen world but those of us with a few more years under our belts remember his films well. He dealt with a variety of issues, including teen angst, parenting, family ties and social groups.

So where's the tech angle I hear you ask? Well, he, and others, have used computers as a narrative arc to their characters. And with the summer movie season about to start it struck us as a good time to do a list that would both honour his memory and give you all an excuse to sit down with a DVD or two and enjoy tech in the movies.

10. Westworld

Shaun Nichols: While I'm sure there were commercials and trailers made for Westworld, they weren't really necessary. All they had to do was say "robotic Yul Brynner goes on a murderous rampage" and most everyone was sold on the movie.

Westworld touched on what has become a reliable cliché for summer blockbusters: robots gone berserk. As with any movie about the future made in 1973, it has aged a bit, though not nearly as badly as other movies. It was also written and directed by Michael Crichton, who twenty years later replaced the robots with dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, one of the most successful films of all time.

Iain Thomson: Westworld does look a little dated these days but if you want a good tale of computers run amok then this is a film for you.

In many ways the central theme of the film is not dissimilar to the Terminator chronicles - Yul Brynner is after you and he absolutely will not stop, even after he loses his face. Brynner is genuinely unsettling in his pursuit, in a way that our current governor Arnie can only dream to be. Maybe it's something to do with accents.

Sure, you can poke holes in the central premise but who cares. The film is a classic, and well worth a watch.


Iain Thomson: WALL-E was one of those cutesy films I profess to hate but, deep down in the dark obsidian of my soul, I have a sneaking fondness for.

The film owes its very existence to computers. Pixar couldn't exist without massive amounts of processing power and after the studio worked out an underwater physics engine that functioned well enough for 'Finding Nemo' it decided to take that and do a movie about space.

Also, the nerd in me was really caught by the geekiness of the film. WALL-E is obsolete technology and as a lifelong collector of out-of-date kit it had a real appeal. You can stick your netbooks and smartphones; I still hold a special place in my heart for my Palm IIIx and its portable keyboard.

It's also a rather subversive film; a savage skewering of the consumer society that currently rules the roost. I think that there are more than a few rebels at Pixar who like putting subversive thoughts in kid's minds, and this is no bad thing considering the billions spent on adverts to do the same to push another perspective.

Shaun Nichols: My father is the sort of person who won't watch anything that doesn't involve sports or explosions. He routinely pokes fun at me for enjoying the Simpsons. Imagine my shock when he recommended I go see Wall-E.

Pixar movies are generally decent, but Wall-E is on another level. As Iain noted, it actually is a rather harsh satire of what technological advances have begun to do to us both culturally and biologically. One can argue that it's the most poignant piece of social commentary disguised as children's entertainment this side of Dr Seuss.

Perhaps it's also a sign that there's still a little bit of revolutionary hippie spirit left in that business mogul's heart of Steve Jobs. His finger prints are all over that movie - after all, none of the robots had a removable battery.

8. Terminator 2: Judgement Day

Shaun Nichols: While any of the Terminator films could have easily made this list, we settled on the second instalment. In addition to having a fair amount of technology in the plot and dealing with the actual development of SkyNet, T2 was also arguably the most technologically innovative of the series.

The use of computer animation in the film was absolutely mind-blowing at the time and one can make a pretty strong argument that it set the standard for CGI use in action films. It nicely straddled the early 90s action era of blowing everything up and the late 90s era of digital effects, used to blow everything up. T2 should be mandatory viewing for directors of today who rely on CGI graphics for nearly everything.

Iain Thomson: We had a works outing to go and see this when it first came out and the effects were truly amazing. As one of the few people in the group who knew a thing or six about computers I then got pounded with questions of it is was possible to do these graphics on the 386-chip PCs we had in the office. A lot of people went home disappointed that night.

From an IT perspective certain parts of the film suck. The youthful John Connor cracks an ATM using a handheld computer in a way that still isn't possible today, a metal arm with no computer components is somehow important to a chip manufacturer and Cyberdyne Systems apparently doesn't have off-site backups, but these are niggles.

Visually the film was a masterpiece and if you've got your home entertainment system hooked up to a big sub-woofer I highly recommend cranking up the volume, opening a few beers and giving it a go. Sure, the noise will sterilise your cat but it'll be worth it.

7. Short Circuit

Iain Thomson: The tale of "Strategic Artificially Intelligent Nuclear Transport" 5, or Johnny 5, was an enjoyable piece of pap, saved to my mind only by the fact that it starred the delectable Ally Sheedy.

Oddly enough both this film and our number one pick depend on lightening as an essential plot device for stimulating intelligence and life. Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein', which was written nearly two hundred years ago, still echoes. High tech owes a huge debt to low tech fiction.

But the film was fun. Johnny 5 was basically ET with gears but there's enough of the lovable original in there to make it a very fun film to watch, and I recently found a friend's kids were entranced by the film even today. Given today's children seem to have the attention span of a goldfish (although I'm sure my parents said the same thing about us) that's a powerful testament. Just don't watch the sequel.

Shaun Nichols: It seems that every robot in made between 1980 and 1995 was designed for either killing people or befriend small children. Short Circuit was one of the later, fortunately. I don't think Johnny 5 would have made a very impressive Terminator.

Certain stories don't get old. While I was far too young to lust after Ally Sheedy when I first saw it, I enjoyed Short Circuit, and still do. What's more, it's not one of those 'guilty pleasure' movies that you're afraid to admit you still enjoy. I can be sitting around the house drinking beers and telling jokes with three friends, and if Short Circuit comes on we all sit and watch it, no teasing or fighting necessary.

6. War Games

Shaun Nichols: I have a confession to make; the only reason I suggested this list was so we could talk about how awesome War Games was. The only reason it wasn't higher on our list was that it was more suspenseful and cerebral than the traditional summer viewing fare.

Matthew Broderick plays a budding computer hacker that breaks into what he thinks is a game server. Turns out he hacked a secret NORAD supercomputer that controls the entire US nuclear arsenal, and now the computer is ready to play a game of 'blow up the world.'

Aside from a great story, it's also a bit of a history lesson for those of us too young to remember the days when floppy disks were the size of record sleeves and hooking up a modem required placing the handset of your telephone on a special dock.

Iain Thomson: Is War Games a fun film? I can't help but think so.

Sure there are times when you think the world is going to end and some of the characters tend towards the morbid. But nevertheless it won't put too much of a downer on your summer viewing.

That said it did make a lot of parents look at computers in a whole new light. Could these things kick off World War Three? Well yes, but not in the hands of teenagers. The world has come very close to the brink more than once due to computer errors but in none of these cases was a teenager with a cute girlfriend (Ally Sheedy again!) involved.

Nevertheless we weren't to know that at the time and the film inspired a whole generation of geeks to stop playing Manic Miner and get out there and do something really interesting with this chunk of silicon and plastic on our desks. This in itself was no bad thing.

5. Tron

Iain Thomson: As far as I know Shaun wasn't even born when Tron came out, and he'll be too old for the sequel out within a year.

The basic plot is too nonsensical today to be taken seriously but back then it was a revelation. Sentient computer and hacking skills were new concepts and all done with a level of special effects that hadn't been seen before. It was an entrancing spectacle.

This was backed up by outside marketing. Tron was the first film to actually make more money from spin-offs like video games than it did in box office takings. I and many other teenagers spent hours in video arcades (large shops full of games machines for our younger readers) playing the Tron game and others, and imagining ourselves zipping through the ether on light cycles or flinging luminous discuses of death at each other.

What's added to the fun is the extent to which Tron has become a pop-culture phenomenon. Tron Guy now makes a living parading around conferences and exhibitions in his home-made uniform and the fact that Hollywood is willing to lash out millions on a sequel – which we know will be dire – is the proof of the pudding.

Shaun Nichols: Tron has to be on this list, as we all need to appreciate the movie for its greatness before a crappy remake comes out and ruins the whole thing.

What's ironic is that despite being hailed as groundbreaking film for its use of computer animation, the bulk of the special effects in Tron were done by hand using old-fashioned pen and paper animation techniques. The artists at Disney must have had a good laugh as they sat down at their desks and did the visual effects for their groundbreaking film set inside a giant computer.

Though it wasn't a huge commercial success, Tron was and still is a cult phenomenon. Nostalgia does tend to make people enjoy things more fondly than they really did the first time. Iain noted Tron guy, but I have one better: a artist friend of mine tells the story of a client who wanted a large tattoo resembling a Tron costume using glow-in-the-dark ink.

4. Office Space

Shaun Nichols: Anyone who has spent more than two days working in a cubicle can understand and enjoy this Mike Judge cult classic.

For those who haven't seen it yet, the movie centres around a typical office worker who more or less flips and decides to become the ultimate slacker. In the meantime, viewers are treated to a parade of memorable scenes and timeless quotes.

The movie not only perfectly nails the corporate world of bosses, co-workers, fax machines and pointless reports, but it also touches on a number of fantasies, namely beating the crap out of unruly network equipment.

Iain Thomson: These lists are sometimes a cultural eduction for us both and I'd never heard of this film. A quick trip to the rental store and I can see what Shaun likes about this flick.

Programming is a mixed blessing as a job. While some go into it for the love of coding others just see it as a reliable pay check. But whatever your motivation having idiotic middle managers is a pain in the backside that we've all experienced at one time or another.

From a cybercrime perspective it's a tad far fetched but certainly an enjoyable romp and has made me very nervous about borrowing someone's stapler.

3. The Matrix

Iain Thomson: We formulated this list and were cracking on with it when suddenly Shaun turned and said “Iain, how the f*** did we miss off the Matrix?” A hasty reworking followed.

My only excuse for the error is I've tried to expunge it from my mind. The original film was such a masterpiece, but the next two were abominations. But the fundamental concepts are all about computers.

Leaving aside the atrocious misuse of technology the ultimate idea is that we are all living in computer simulations, and that makes for a great deal of fun. Once you learn how to bend the rules, or hack the code, pretty much anything is possible. This allows for all sorts of silliness, although why Keanu Reaves couldn't program himself a more intelligent brain is beyond me.

Shaun Nichols: Yes, we were making great time on the list and reminiscing about all the great movies when it hit me like a ton of bricks. How could we have left out the Matrix. It was hastily slotted into the third spot and everything was moved down a peg, booting "Jurassic Park" from the list. Apologies to the memory of Michael Crichton, especially as the chance to take the mickey out of the “this is a UNIX system” line has been lost.

As Iain noted, the last two Matrix movies stunk on ice, but the first one was pretty good. I'm no fan of Keanu Reeves, but if there was ever an actor born to utter the phrase "whoa... I know kung fu!" it was him. While the other two movies delve more into fantasy and philosophy than any real technology, the first movie keeps some grasp on actual technology and its ability to interact with humans.

Plus, it's a fun movie, particularly late at night when for one reason or another you can't sleep, it's an excellent film to take in while one is in that half-conscious insomniac state.

2. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Shaun Nichols: I don't think you can earn a degree in engineering, computer science, or mathematics without watching this movie. In the annals of geek cinema, only Monty Python is more beloved than the film version of this classic Douglas Adams novel.

I'm not sure if I should even bother with a plot summary, as anyone who hasn't seen Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy likely has no interest in visiting this web site, but here's the jist of it: an ordinary guy is pulled off the Earth shortly before the complete destruction of the planet and sent on a journey across the galaxy with his crazy neighbour, a clinically depressed robot and the president of the galaxy.

In addition to being a great film, it was also a book, radio drama and television series. Truly, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a story that has entertained and delighted decades of science fiction fans.

Iain Thomson: OK, I'm in a quandary about this one. Douglas Adams is one of my gods (as a self-described radical atheist he might disapprove of that) and I still have the tattered and much-repaired first edition paperback of the Guide I bought as a teenager. I regularly chased the family out of the room so I could listen to the original radio series. But this list is about films.

I held off on watching the film for years after it came out. Nothing could compare to the books and radio series was the thinking. As it turns out they did a pretty good job overall, although the gun sub-plot was rather mystifying.

As a geek one of the original concepts of the book was so stunning in its simplicity and humour it blew me away. A race build a computer to discover the answer to the life, the universe and everything. The answer, as I'm sure you know, is 42. It was the classic example of GIGO programming – garbage in, garbage out.

1. Weird Science

Iain Thomson: OK, technically this might not have been a logical choice for the number one spot but it is a John Hughes inspired list so give us a break.

Bear in mind if you watch this that the film came out in 1985, when the very notion of having a computer in the home was rather new and people weren't really sure what you could do with them. Of course, no-one but maybe a few hormonally challenged teenagers actually thought you could build a software woman, something still impossible today.

But the film is undeniably fun. Leaving aside some very dodgy racial stereotypes and the failings of Kelly LeBrock as an actress the film is a very good teenage comedy that covers all the bases; wanting to be cool and desired, dealing with older siblings and coping with the parents. Yes, a part of me winces every time Einstein's face is scanned to give intelligence but there have been worse abuses of logic and there are still parts that bring a chuckles even now.

Shaun Nichols: I'm guessing PC sales got a slight jolt when this film hit and teenage boys got the idea that you could build a supermodel with a Commodore 64 and a lightning rod.

One thing Hughes always did well was underdog stories, and Weird Science was a great example. It was the 1980s and life was tough for the techies. The dot-com boom was still fifteen years away so there was no notion of 'geek chic' and the nerdy-types were ostracised far more than they are today. As far as underdogs go, it doesn't get much worse than a high-school computer enthusiast with one friend.

So yes, it was funny and absurd and goofy, but Weird Science also had a pretty good message. As with most John Hughes films, the protagonists overcome alienation, frustration and a psycho biker gang from hell with little more than confidence and a self-esteem boost, all using a computer.

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