The things the movies think computers do

Far from the familiar tools we use every day, computers are the stuff of magic, if Hollywood's to be believed...

Computers. What began as gigantic, wayward things the size of a house have been tamed and shrunk, and now live cheerfully in our pockets as mobile phones, in our bags as tablets or laptops, and on our desktops as workstations and gatherers of breadcrumbs.

To almost every one of us, computers are about as mysterious and unfathomable as cucumbers. But cast a casual eye over Hollywood’s output of the last few decades, and you might think that computers were a product of the dark arts. In movies, computers make weird noises, possess strange powers, harbour despotic fantasies, and when all else fails, explode into a million fragments.

With a helping hand from our techie friends over at Expert Reviews here’s our compilation of the things that Hollywood filmmakers think computers can do…

They make noise every time a character of text appears on the screen

Stop for a minute and look at the computer/tablet/phone that you’re reading this article on right now. Notice something? That every word of this piece appeared in one go? It’s a ruse that computers have been pulling pretty much since the early 80s with a searing sense of confidence. Which makes it all the more bizarre that the high-tech machines of Hollywood haven’t caught up.

Ad – content continues below

It’s hardly uncommon for a character to sit at a machine that looks like it could comfortably power an electricity grid, while running a Bombermine server in the background, only to see text appearing on a character by character basis. Seriously: when was the last time anyone used a computer that did this, when it wasn’t doing it for effect? Here’s hoping no major movie character gets their hands on a Kindle anytime soon.

And while we’re on the subject…

Text makes a noise as it appears on the screen too

Unless it’s one of those days where we’ve, er, got a bit of a noisy advert on the site (sorry about those, bills to pay), when things appear on a computer screen, they do it with stealth. They sneak in, silently, and magically appear before your eyes. Just like letters from RoboCop’s legal department.

Not in the movies though. Even when there’s no obvious audio device connected, computers go about their everyday work with as much irrelevant and useless noise as they can muster. In Torchwood: Miracle Day, every computer scrolled text onto the screen, and made some noise akin to lots of mice nibbling on cardboard as it did so. Lots of movies do it too, as if it’s adding some drama to the proceedings. It isn’t, of course. It just makes us wonder what the salesperson at PC World told them when buying the bloody computers in the first place.

They all have really fancy graphical user interfaces

We know not what operating system the computers of the movies tend to use, but we’ve not seen one film where the hero is staring at a circling hour glass, hitting Ctrl-Alt-Del, to end a process tree or generally waiting for Windows/MacOS to bugger around for a bit. In the likes of 24, to be fair, the operating system looked awesome. And in Skyfall, the computers under the stewardship of Ben Whishaw’s Q made it look as though MI6 had a sideline going in operating system design. None of it looked in the remotest bit useable in any practical way, of course. But the days of a bit of Unix in Jurassic Park look long gone…

They have security, but no security that can’t be cracked in a minute

This is more than just about passwords, which we’re going to come to shortly. This is about hacking. Because it seems that there is no system in the world that’s safe from a good movie hacker. Particularly if there’s a speech beforehand about how difficult the hack in question is, and how many hours or days the job will take.

Ad – content continues below

Hollywood isn’t satisfied with that though. Instead, in the infamous Swordfish, not only does it require a major hack to be completed in under a minute, but said hack involves some, umm, ‘multi-tasking’.

It’s barely worth turning the computer’s security system on…

When they go wrong, things start to blow up

When a computer crashes in real life it’s often quite annoying, but spectacularly dull to watch. In films, when a computer goes wrong, it’s very exciting and stuff starts to explode. The way computers go wrong depend on the film or TV show.

In Star Trek, Kirk need only ask an alien computer to “Explain. The. Human emotion. Known. As… Love”, for it to go into a bizarre loop where its logical systems can’t compute and it explodes. In Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the destruction of the main ship causes the droid army to lose its control signal and fail – one of them even has his head fall off. Quite why you’d ever build this feature into your army of destruction is beyond us.

Nothing is easier than guessing a complicated password

In all films when the protagonist gets to a vital computer that’s protected by a password, guessing the password is always easy. Granted, when Matthew Broderick needed a password in WarGames, it was a case of a quick scoot around to find it written down. But as technology has advanced, it seems that computers’ ability to protect themselves remains non-existent.

Ad – content continues below

Given three chances to make the correct choice then, this is generally what happenings. The person concerned firstly types the password in incorrectly. It wouldn’t be dramatic if they got it on the first go.

Now comes the ramping up of the stakes, as chins are stroked, heads are scratched, and walls are stared at. But no: nobody gets the password on the second attempt either. For take three, even more serious headscratching is required, but the magical flashback of glee is deployed. That’s when the eureka moment happens, inspiration is found, and the correct password is entered.

Example? Just see the bit in Watchmen when they correctly guess Ozymandias’ password by finding a book on his desk. It’s almost as if in Hollywood people are required to enter passwords that are both easy to guess and have some kind of obvious personal connection to the person. And by no means ever should the password contain upper- and lower-case characters or numbers to make them harder to break. You wouldn’t be able to guess them after all.

Deleted files are removed from the screen

You know the point in the film. The good guys have just got access to a computer and are looking at the secret files, when suddenly the bad guy hacks into the computer and starts deleting files. Not only are they gone from the hard disk, but they disappear from the application that they’re open in.

Our heroes look confused, and start wildly typing away in an effort to stop the process. However, not once do they think to turn the computer off and remove the hard disk, or unplug it from the internet to stop the hacker from having any access to it.

In Hollywoodland there’s no such thing as an undelete utility that’s been shipped with every computer for decades, so the files are apparently gone for ever. Bugger.

Ad – content continues below

Printers always jam when you most urgently need a printout

To be fair, that’s one that Hollywood gets pretty much bang on.

People who write blogs are always nerdy, wear glasses, and have slight personal hygiene issues.

Moving on then…

Viruses always do something visual

In real life if you get infected with a virus (fake AV scams the exception to the rule), you won’t notice anything bar the occasional fault and sometimes system resources being consumed. The reason for this is that the hacker is after money by taking over your computer, so announcing their presence would be stupid. It would be like a bank robber tunnelling into the vault only to run up to the banking floor during the lunchtime rush, waving and shouting at everyone about what they’re doing.

The things viruses do in films are always stupid. They can display a skull and crossbones for no conceivable reason, or they may display a message saying something like “deleting files”. In all cases they leave the computer user looking confused before bashing their keyboard (again), trying to circumvent what the hacker’s doing.

Also: hacking and viruses let you do anything

If you’re an antagonist in a major movie now, you can safely put away your stash of machine guns and high explosives. Instead, just get a few Dummies Guide To Virus Creation books out of the library and swot up.

After all, ever since the aliens of Independence Day were infamously beaten by a bit of computer code, the virus has become a weapon of choice. Perhaps the most bizarre example was Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines, where the Terminator managed to get a car started, and shifting gears as a result of a quick hack. That’s a useful trick on a frosty morning…

Ad – content continues below

Everything is compatible

Have you ever tried to run Theme Hospital on a Windows 7 computer? Because you might just need to be a movie star to get away with it. We’ve messed around with compatibility modes, changed settings, and sat on our knees before the computer in question, begging the bastard thing to work. Of course, we should have gone to gog.com, but we’ve learned the moral of the story since.

In the movies though, any disk works in any computer. Every machine has the requisite software on it to open any file. Not once is someone urged to download an update patch, or told that the contents of said disk are incompatible. There’s no ringing up technical support, and no quietly weeping, with your tears draining beneath your space bar.

Computers have to be controlled by keyboard

Despite the fact that when computers are used in the real world, the keyboard is only used for the occasional shortcut or for actual typing, film and TV characters will only use the keyboard. At stupid speeds.

Yep, that’s right, they put down the mouse and turn to the keyboard, wildly bashing at keys while windows pop up, move around and images are zoomed and enhanced. A few more key presses later and the character will probably mutter something like, “I’m opening a port now” or “I just need to bypass the encryption algorithm on the mainframe” or other completely meaningless and stupid phrases.

Ditching the mouse does not make anything easier and it’s clear from watching these people that they’re bashing the keyboards completely randomly. The only way any sense would come out of it would be to get 1,000 of these characters together and sit them in front of typewriters while you wait for the works of Shakespeare to pop out.

The arrival of an email is heralded by some grandiose moment

When you get an e-mail in your inbox, you may or may not get some kind of alert for your trouble. A quiet beep perhaps, or a visual indiciation. Maybe even a pop-up. In films? Not so.

Ad – content continues below

E-mail was a novelty, certainly, when 1995’s Disclosure came along, so perhaps it’s forgivable there that every mail that landed in Michael Douglas’ inbox was announced with a full screen graphic dominating his computer’s display. But even since then, it sometimes feels like a virtual marching band walks in front of the screen every time an e-mail arrives. Oh, and every e-mail is important too. Nobody in the movies gets Viagra spam.

The good guys always use Apple

This probably says more about Apple’s massive marketing budget for product placement, but the good guys always use Macs. You’ll never see a bad guy pull out his gun, shoot a bus-load of nuns and then pull out his Mac Book Pro and send a message.

In particular, good-guy hackers will use a Mac, which seems unlikely as hackers are more likely to have a Linux computer and, failing that, the operating system that they’re most likely to attack is Windows.

It’s not just Macs, either. One of the worst pieces of product placement we’ve ever seen took place in Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief, where the stare of Medusa was beaten by looking at her reflection on…. the back of a super-shiny iPhone! Yay! Apple good, the rest of the world bad. Right?

You can zoom and enhance any footage

This one’s becoming truer as time goes on. It doesn’t stop it being a staple of the writer needing a shortcut at times, though (particularly those working for CSI): a security camera or photo is put on a screen, someone asks for zone G4 to be zoomed and enhanced, then, as if by magic, stunning detail appears from nowhere and the criminal is identified.

Yet as we all know, all zooming into a poor-quality image would generally, unless you had the specific tools required, leave a muddled blurry mess on the screen. This technique was brilliantly parodied in Red Dwarf.

Ad – content continues below

Screens must light up people’s faces

For some reason, Hollywood believes that when someone uses a monitor, it must without fail project its image over their face. The power required for a monitor to do this would be immense – well, let’s face it, you’d actually have to have a projector inside. Can you imagine what this would do to your eyes if your monitor worked like this? You’d definitely be blind.

Then there’s the question of privacy. Sitting there with what you’re viewing plastered all over your face would give the game away to the point where even Internet Explorer’s InPrivate browsing would be rendered entirely pointless.

Sooner or later, all computer systems will become self-aware

From Colossus: The Forbin Project to the repeated attempts by Skynet to destroy mankind in the Terminator, movies have constantly warned us that if your computer’s plugged in for too long, it’ll eventually wake up, rub its figurative eyes and then start thinking about ways of taking over the world.

In reality, scientists have been tinkering around with artificial intelligence since the Cold War, and although some of the innovations it’s given us have been wonderful – search engines, digital chess champions and so forth – we appear to be no closer to creating a thinking digital brain than we were 60 years or so ago.  

Nevertheless, intelligent computers are still a common theme in movies, whether they’re benign – as seen in Moon‘s Gerty, voiced by Kevin Spacey, or the Iron Man series’ Jarvis, with Paul Bettany on vocals – or downright evil, like the one that turned humans into batteries in the Matrix trilogy.

Steven Spielberg even planned to adapt the sci-fi 2011 novel Robopocalypse for the big screen, which saw an AI computer called Archos wage war on humanity by unleashing a virus which caused cars, planes and other devices to randomly crash. The movie has been put on indefinite hold – probably because the computer holding the script kept resetting every time Spielberg attempted to load it…

Ad – content continues below