Computers can sometimes be full characters in movies — they play an important part in stories of all kinds — adventure, science-fiction, even romance. The one thing movie portrayals of computers seldom are is accurate and people who actually work with computers sometimes find that annoying. But these five movie computers and the movies that feature them are great family viewing.
1. War Games Matthew Broderick plays a high school kid who is trying to hack into some unreleased computer games when he connects to the Defense Department’s super-secret missile launch program instead. Made in 1983, the real-life computers available to the film-makers were not up to the task of creating the massive computer system required by the screenplay. So, the set (at the time, the most expensive single movie set ever built) used old-fashioned animation for the computer screens. Today, it would be the other way around, with the real-life computers creating special effects that will look “real” on screen.
2. Desk Set The first color film featuring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy is a clever romantic comedy about a television network research department (headed by Hepburn) disrupted by the installation of a new computer called EMERAC (installed by Tracy). The computer looks as antiquated today as a horse and buggy — it takes up much of the room and uses punch cards — but the screenplay and performances hold up beautifully and the issues of automation vs. the human touch are still very relevant.
3. Galaxy Quest One of the funniest films of the last 10 years is this hilarious story of a “Star Trek” like television series that turns out to be the real thing when a group of aliens replicate it in outer space. Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, and Tony Shaloub are the washed-up television stars relegated to fanfests and store openings who find themselves in the midst of an intergalactic battle with a tyrannical alien who looks like a big lizard in an eye-patch (and of course has the obligatory attribute for a movie villain — an English accent). One of my favorite lines is when Sigourney Weaver explains that she only has one job on the ship — to repeat everything the computer says!
4. You’ve Got Mail This third version of the classic story about a man and a woman who feud during the day, not realizing that they are exchanging tender anonymous love letters, updates the story to the era of email and takes its title from AOL’s memorable notification. Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks communicate via their laptops in this charming love story. (The delightful pre-computer versions of the story were “The Shop Around the Corner” with Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan and “In the Good Old Summertime” with Judy Garland and Van Johnson.) NOTE: Screenwriter Nora Ephron is the daughter of “Desk Set” screenwriters Phoebe and Henry Ephron.
5. 2001: A Space Odyssey Probably the most famous computer in movie history is HAL, voiced by Canadian actor Douglas Rain, which greets astronaut David Bowan with a smooth, “Good morning, Dave” (there’s a sly tribute to that moment in “Independence Day”). Its name comes from Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic Computer, and not, as often speculated, because HAL’s letters are each one away from computer giant IBM. We should guess as soon as HAL explains, “The 9000 series is the most reliable computer ever made. No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error” that even a computer can be guilty of hubris.