What Superman 3 teaches us about computer programming

Feature Simon Brew 23 Oct 2013 - 06:13

Gus Gorman's computer programming in Superman III nearly brings the world to its knees. But how did he do it? Er...

Hollywood movies and computers didn't always really get on in the early 1980s. Screenwriters were left with the option of researching them, and putting things that made sense on the screen. Or just making shit up, and hope that it stuck.

Superman III, then. It may not be a popular opinion, but we've always had a soft spot for Superman III. It's a mile below the standard of the first two films, but it has character, personality, and it also has the excellent scene where evil Superman fights Clark Kent. Give us a fight like that, rather than the last half hour of Man Of Steel

But for the purposes of this piece, this is the film where Richard Pryor plays Gus Gorman, a man with no known computing skills whatsoever, who - when his social security is stopped - turns to programming out of desperation. Given what Gorman accomplishes in the movie - and we're going to spoil lots of Superman III ahead if you haven't seen the movie, so please be warned - it seems important to acknowledge that this is a new discipline for him.

The screenplay determines that Gus Gorman's life-changing move into computer programming comes a result of an advert on the back of a book of matches. And if you thought that was a bit flimsy, you'd have to say that the props department didn't really put their back into coming up with a convincing phone number for him to dial...

Still, inside ten minutes Gorman is sat in his computer class, faced with the kind of problem to solve that would make Will Hunting break out in a teensy bit of sweat. We know it's difficult, because a student beforehand asks the course tutor "what if you want to program two bilaterial coordinates at the same time?".

In spite of this being an adult education class, said tutor patrols the room with a stick, asserting "you can't do that. It's impossible". And he is, you assume, the expert here. "Computer technology is very advanced young lady", he tells her in a completely non-condescending way, "but it can't do that". It really needs someone like Meat Loaf to pull that line off.

The tool.

But then! What's this on Gus Gorman's monitor? It's not two bi-lateral co-ordinates is it? It surely is! And it works!

So how's it done? Superman III was made back in the days of programming in BASIC, and so helpfully, Gorman types in a LIST command, familiar to those of us who spent hours copying programming listings out of computer magazines, only to find they never bloody worked.

The progam listing then scrolls up the screen. And if you tut when you see the following screenshots and mutter 'that'd never work, not even on a Spectrum', then help yourself to two extra geek points from the jar.

That code is supposed to solve the two bi-lateral co-ordinates challenge. Let's just look at some of the problems.

* The program keeps pointing to a sub-routine at line 5000, that's clearly not there
* This is basically a program to do nothing more than put the on-screen display together, as heralded by the abundance of PRINT commands. At least they avoided a few REMs.
* It looks like a more interesting routine is hidden from lines 60 onwards, hidden behind PRINT commands that would, er, stop it working.
* That INKEY$ command just loops back to the same line, doesn't it?
* CLS on line 50? Why? Why? Why? Why do you need to clear the screen at that stage in the routine?
* Tsk.

What do you mean we take this stuff perhaps a little too seriously?

These mildly pedantic points aside, Gorman soon lands a job, unaware that he's working for Evil Robert Vaughn. Thus, he stays back after work one night, to hack into the work computers and award himself a few extra expenses. This, friends, will take some fiendish coding.

But what possible lines of programming genius will it require? What would you need to type in to override all the ruthless security of the Webscoe Payroll Division?

Er...

It's a good job he did that course.

Next question, then. What command will this early computer require, were you to want to channel the half cents from all Webscoe salaries into someone's expense account? This is where Gus Gorman uses every ounce of skill he picked up before...

End result of this? A manually signed cheque, where Vincent Winter (the film's production manager as it happens) didn't seem to notice just what he was signing off...

Bizarrely, Gorman's actions proved trackable, and he's recruited by Evil Robert Vaughn to hack the Vulcan weather satellite, which for reasons of an impromptu script conference, requires him to go to an office in Smallville. There, he proceeds to get nasty Brad drunk, while wearing a big hat.

Once this task is complete, and the hat is shed, it's hardcore hacking time. Granted, there's the 'two keys at the same time' conundrum to get around, but passed out Brad proves helpful there. And Gorman is soon down to work.

For fear of copycat hackers though, Superman III elects not to show us the exact code Gorman uses this time (probably something like 10 HACK ANY COMPUTER THAT I LIKE IN THE WORLD FROM THIS SHITTY LITTLE MACHINE, 20 GOTO 10), as cashpoints go awry, lights flash, traffic signals mess up, bills are printed and a man shoves a grapefruit in a woman's face (really). All achieved from one terminal.

It's a pity about the coding, as we've love in particular to know the routine that led to the two folks in the traffic signals having a punch up. Bet it involved a few PRINT, GOSUB and INKEY$ commands.

To be fair, it's at this stage that Superman III wisely cuts to meaningless numbers, to stop pedants like us writing unfunny articles on websites some 30 years later.

Gorman gets access to the Vulcan weather satellite, and from something with half the power of a Commodore 64, he sets the world off on a path to meeting this woman here...

However, we're getting ahead of ourselves. Because Evil Robert Vaughn needs more computer code. What lines, then, would be needed then to scour an entirely different galaxy, to see if they have any Kryptonite information out there? You might just be getting the hang of this...

And could this sophisticated computer system then acknowledge these lines, without managing to spell one of the next two words incorrectly?

Ah.

Gus, if you remember, at this point realises that the computer technology at his disposal isn't strong enough. He's only managed so far to affect the global financial system, damage the world's oil supplies by moving every tanker into roughly the same place, and track down alien elements in outer space. So he needs Evil Robert Vaughn to build him a new computer. Gus, the man who couldn't program a computer at the start of the film, has sketched out his blueprints on the back of some napkins and stuff.

Evil Robert Vaughn agrees to build said computer. Evil Robert Vaughn likes what he sees. We like what he sees too.

The computer coding educational element of the film is done by this point, so it'd be remiss to not salute the forerunner to RoboCop that comes next. Genuinely, this creeped us out when we were kids...

That, friends, is the stuff of childhood nightmares. And that is where our work here is done, for fear that RoboPrototypeWoman will come after us.

As we said at the start, Superman III is a muddled, but cherished oddity (and let's not forget the mayhem of Supergirl was just around the corner). Appreciating it chucks away much of what makes the first two movies so interesting - the Christ metaphor for one - it does its utmost to make up for it with some solid computer work. But it also has some really good stuff in the midst of it all. Of course, the behind the scenes battles between the Salkinds and many of the creative team are legendary, and we heartily recommend the book Superman Vs Hollywood if you want to find out a lot more about that.

And yes, fair point: we've been utterly unfairly nitpicky here. But it's done with love in our heart. Superman III did that thing of trying to be futuristic, which dates it within minutes of its release. Yet it still had a damn good go.

But just remember: all of this computer mayhem that we talked about came from a man who answered an ad on the back of a book of matches. There's important career advice there, kids.

For Superman, meanwhile, Nuclear Man and Milton Keynes were just around the corner. And you can read our 10 remarkable things about Superman IV, right here.

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