November 11, 2008, 2:54 PM — Ever since Fritz Lang unveiled the robot Maria in his 1927 silent-screen sci-fi classic Metropolis, computers have been part of the fabric of the movies. The Internet, however, is a newer phenomenon, and filmmakers are still figuring out how to work the now-essential and pervasive communications system into their movies in a worthwhile way.
With that in mind, I've made a list of the five best and five worst movies that are about the Internet in significant part, or that feature it prominently as a plot device. I've linked all movies to their Internet Movie Database entries, and for nine of the movies, I've also included a trailer (the tenth one proved too elusive).
Since the focus here is on movies about the Internet--not just computers in general--a number of pre-Internet compu-flicks (WarGames, Tron), movies inspired by YouTube (Cloverfield), and Web-centric movies that graded out as "just OK" (Live Free and Die Hard, Untraceable) didn't make the cut.
The Five Best Net Movies
1. The Matrix (1999). Is The Matrix really about the Internet? It's epic sci-fi, to be sure, but it's also a broad allegory for where technology could take us. The role of the Internet in The Matrix is basically insidious: It has evolved into a global simulation of life solely to amuse and distract unconscious humans who are being used to power the grid.
Some worry that this dystopian vision isn't just a fantasy--that we're genuinely headed this direction. The film reportedly helped inspire Second Life impresario Philip Rosedale to create his popular virtual world. Ultimately, The Matrix isn't about the Internet. It is the Internet. Whoa.
2. Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005). Writer-director Miranda July's brilliant, deadpan comedy proved that as recently as three years ago, a creative author could come up with a fresh and original way to use the Internet as a plot device. The Net plays a crucial supporting role in the film--a subplot in which two characters who know each other only through their interaction on the Web decide to meet. The fact that neither is what the other expected is almost beside the point; the fun is in how they get to their fateful meeting.
If any movie on this list is destined for eventual release as a Criterion Collection DVD, this is the one. It gets bonus points for creating one of the most memorable emoticons in history; the clip is a bit raunchy for us to publish, but here's the YouTube link for the curious.
3. Hackers (1995). Widely panned as cheesy and goofy at its release, Hackers subsequently emerged as a cult classic in the Web community--at least among viewers too young to have seen WarGames when it was originally released. The movie presents a now-rote, improbable, stylized, and VR-heavy visualization of cyberspace, but it sort of works anyway, thanks to its over-the-top story line and stars. (What other movie can boast the one-two punch of Angelina Jolie and Fisher Stevens?)
The film even manages a few hints of realism: Before the core crew of hackers allows Jonny Lee Miller's Dade to enter their group, they challenge him to identify a series of technical manuals considered essential reading among real hackers in the early 1980s. Dade aces the test, which culminates with the Ugly Red Book That Won't Fit on a Shelf.
4. Startup.com (2001). Remember the Web boom? Not Web 2.0, but the first one, before the dot-com bubble collapsed in 2000? In Startup.com, documentarians Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim captured the glorious rise and astonishingly rapid descent of a prototypical dot-com enterprise, GovWorks.com, from inception to implosion. The movie gives viewers an meeting-room seat at the brainstorming sessions, the team-building exercises, and the venture-capital pitches at the heart of a Web business launch. The period of wild enthusiasm, projected juggernautical growth, and prehatch egg counting is promptly followed by executive in-fighting, mass layoffs, and a spectacular collapse.
In a post-Enron world where outright malice underlies so much corporate failure, this story of simple ignorance and greed leading to a business's downfall seems almost quaint. But it does a fine job of summing up the dot-com era in a fleeting 107 minutes. Also check out the similar-themed E-Dreams, which chronicles the collapse of the better-known but equally doomed Kozmo.com.
5. AntiTrust (2001). This film is a guilty nerd pleasure if ever there was one. Ryan Phillippe stars as a young coder recruited into a vast computer conglomerate called NURV, where he's assigned to develop what amounts to a satellite version of the Internet--a system that will link together all communication devices on Earth (including pagers and PDAs, both of which were still popular at the time).
Alas, NURV turns out to be evil and its "fascist monopolist" boss, played gleefully by Tim Robbins, is revealed as a serial killer who doesn't hesitate to prey on open-source developers. Now that's how a real monopo-fascist handles competition!
The Five Worst Net Movies
1. The Net (1995). The absolute worst film ever about the Internet is the one whose brain trust couldn't come up with a better title than The Net. This 1995 production was meticulously designed to prey on fears of government surveillance and identity theft that the Internet, then new to the masses, was certain to foster.
Those fears come true for poor Sandra Bullock, playing a hottie developer who ends up with a sort of skeleton-key program that gives the bearer access to all manner of secure government computers. Naturally the bad guys want it, so they switch around her identity, transforming her into a fugitive prostitute. The absurdities pile up like 17-year locusts, but footage of a bikini-clad Bullock triumphing against all odds helped the pic generate more than US$100 million at the box office. A 1998 TV series of the same name failed to capture the imagination of the couch potato nation and was canceled after one season.
2. Swimfan (2002). Not a movie about Michael Phelps, this 2002 nightmare finds high-school aquaman Ben (Jesse Bradford) being stalked online by a gorgeous blonde named Madison (Erika Christensen). Her pursuit entails sending Ben naked pictures of herself via e-mail and seducing him in the (brick-and-mortar) pool. But gentleman Ben is conflicted due to a lingering fondness for his cold fish of a girlfriend (Shiri Appleby)...and the fact that Madison seems to keep killing people.
This too-young-to-vote Fatal Attraction angle has been done before, but never so poorly as in Swimfan--and never with such an atrocious title, which is drawn from Madison's not-so-catchy Internet handle: Swimfan85.
3. You've Got Mail (1998). Hollywood has shown more than once that in remaking a classic comedy, the big-budget treatment can be deadly. Case in point: You've Got Mail, a $65 million update of a quaint little 1940 film called The Shop Around the Corner. In Ernst Lubitsch's charming original, Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are anonymous Budapest pen pals who hate each other in real life. In the revised version they're supplanted by Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, and the Hungarian postal service has morphed into America Online. Thus comedic history repeats itself, first as farce, then as tragedy.
The product placement is so thick in this effort--the title is a hint--that Warner Bros. might as well have handed out AOL CDs with every ticket sold. As for the movie, in the hands of director Nora Ephron (who cowrote the updated screenplay) it's a saccharine mess that goes for the heartstrings like the Boston Strangler. You've got tears!
4. The Chatroom (2002). When the turn of the millennium came and went without the expected cyberbang, some enterprising filmmakers abandoned the Internet as a thriller/horror device and began invoking it in the service of comedy. But pulling off that switcheroo takes talent, and The Chatroom has all the hilarity of a "Hey Vern" commercial.
The setup: As part of an elaborate bet (what else?), a bunch of dudes use Internet chat rooms to pick up girls (the movie's tagline: "Surfin' For Cyber Booty"), only the dream girls turn out to be men, old ladies, transvestites, etc. It's yet another entry in the blind-dates-gone-wrong genre, studded (as so many are) with juvenile gags and put-downs centering on the fat joke, which was old when Aristophanes was doing stand-up routines on the Athenian agora. Come to think of it, though, it does sound a lot like the Internet.
This, by the way, is the only film on my list that doesn't have its trailer posted online. To plug the gap, I've linked to a poster instead.
5. FearDotCom (2002). Much like the setup of innumerable Asian horror flicks, FearDotCom is based on the premise of a Web site so scary that if you visit it you will die. Or someone will kill you, I guess. Imagine how much slaying our villain would have to do if his site got Dugg!
Predictably, FearDotCom doesn't make a lick of sense; it's just an excuse to flood its viewers with image after image of blood, guts, and gore. But as the horror sequences shredded on, viewers were left to ponder the curious domain used in the film: It's not "fear.com" but rather feardotcom.com. Warner Bros. sank $42 million into this movie and couldn't afford a better domain name than that?
Christopher Null is the founder and editor-in-chief of Filmcritic.com, operating since 1995.