Remember when it took ages to dial up and go online in the early days of the digital age? Hollywood’s relationship with the internet evolved at a similar pace, with stories that struggled to connect our everyday experiences online with narratives that actually made sense.
Because of this lag, there have been plenty of films that failed to represent the internet accurately without already feeling dated by the time that they hit our screens. Even as far back as 1999, our online experiences were already about so much more than just the sprawling green code seen in The Matrix, and since then countless techno-thrillers have shown hackers somehow infiltrating top-tier government systems in the blink of an eye.
However, there are some directors out there who have managed to cut through the clichés to better represent what life is really like now we live so much of it online. With the internet now 30 years old, here are 10 powerful time capsules charting our digital evolution.
Director John Badham
On the surface, WarGames is just an antiquated 80s film that plays around with the growing popularity of video games while also giving young Matthew Broderick a chance to shine. In reality though, the story of David Lightman and the nuclear apocalypse he accidentally sets in motion was the first visual representation of the internet that the general public encountered, and films have been dialling into this phenomenon ever since.
Although the technology it depicts is obviously simplistic compared to today’s standards, WarGames deserves to be celebrated for pinpointing early on how the internet holds the potential for fun and something infinitely more dangerous too. Media coverage at the time scared people enough to pique President Reagan’s interest, and this led to the creation of the first US federal internet policy. Not bad for an old Matthew Broderick film.
Perfect Blue (1997)
Director Satoshi Kon
Japan is often ahead of the game when it comes to technology and its impact on society, but it’s still eerie how prescient Satoshi Kon’s debut film, Perfect Blue, would turn out to be. What starts out as a simple exploration of the pop idol industry quickly descends into a hypnotic spiral of paranoia wrapped up in the suffocating world of obsessive fandoms.
Before the internet became embedded into everyday life, Perfect Blue represented the very real online dangers that people feared most. Sure, the presence of fax machines and old-school websites date the film somewhat, but by opening up protagonist Mima’s celebrity life to the horrors of psychotic fan culture, Perfect Blue actually feels more contemporary two decades on than it did upon release. Kon was a true visionary in this respect, and cinema just isn’t the same without him.
Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa
While Perfect Blue plunges into the potential horrors that online connections can bring, Pulse argues that the internet can stop us from connecting with others too – and the loneliness of this might be scarier still. Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa wrote this often overlooked J-horror before the internet had fully infiltrated our lives, but the story of technological spirits causing mass suicides profoundly speaks to the inherent aloneness of a modern life spent primarily online.
Almost 20 years after the release of Pulse, scientists and society at large fear more than ever that prolonged use of the internet can affect our psychological well being. Depending on who you talk to, it appears that the fears that haunt the characters of Pulse have crystallised into something painfully real. As one character notes: “People don’t really connect, you know… We all live totally separately.”
Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)
Director Miranda July
Less obsessed with technology than other entries on this list, Me and You and Everyone We Know nonetheless has a great deal to say about loneliness in the digital age. Through this prism, indie favourite Miranda July explores the interconnected lives of multiple Californians, watching them strive to connect without offering any easy answers.
In one particularly memorable plotline, Me and You and Everyone We Know follows 14-year-old Peter and his six-year-old brother Robby as they start talking with an older woman during a late-night chat session. Things soon get out of hand though when the younger sibling decides to meet her in person… Years before the Catfish documentary shone a spotlight on this uniquely modern phenomenon, July recognised the potential pitfalls of online interaction while also reminding us that young children can feel alienated from the world too.
Summer Wars (2009)
Director Mamoru Hosoda
In a world not too far removed from our own, the protagonist of Summer Wars helps maintain a virtual reality space called Oz where the entire population congregate online together. When a sadistic AI called Love Machine manipulates Kenji into accidentally destroying the internet as we know it, the timid 11th grader must fight back in Oz with the help of his family and repair the damage that’s been done both on and offline.
While the majority of Hollywood blockbusters still centre unrealistic mega-computers at the fore of most thrillers, anime legend Mamoru Hosoda is far more tech-literate in his approach here, capturing the online experience with both beauty and surprising realism. What’s most refreshing about Summer Wars, though, is that online connectivity is neither demonised nor hailed as the holy grail. Like all technology, the internet is far more complicated than that, something which Hosoda acknowledges by integrating traditional values into the story too.
Life in a Day (2011)
Director Kevin Macdonald
Ever found yourself clicking from one site to another, descending down a veritable rabbit hole of YouTube videos and Reddit threads? Of course you have. It’s hard to imagine a film capturing this almost universal experience, and yet documentary filmmaker Kevin Macdonald managed exactly that back in 2011 with his crowdsourced movie, Life in a Day.
Comprised of footage taken from 80,000 clips that were submitted by volunteers, Life in a Day presents a world view of what life was like for people across 192 nations on 24 July 2010. Macdonald decided to focus on this 24-hour time frame “because a day is the basic temporal building block of human life – wherever you are,” and there’s something incredibly uplifting about watching people across the world experience the same day together. Through what’s arguably the “first social media movie” ever made, Macdonald highlights the binding properties of the internet, helping to form an inspiring global community that connects rather than isolates.
Director Spike Jonze
Set in the not-too-distant future, Her revolves around the story of a lonely man called Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) who relies on technology to simulate real human connection. At first glance, the idea of falling in love with an artificial operating system might sound far-fetched, even if that intelligence is voiced via an Oscar-worthy turn from Scarlett Johansson. However, it’s hard to deny that writer-director Spike Jonze has tapped into something far more relatable here than we might like to admit.
Although we’re not yet at the stage where personal computers can talk back to us beyond Siri, the internet has already become a crutch for many in the search for connection through our daily lives. How often do we interact with actual strangers on Twitter and Instagram? Emotional reliance on our online devices is becoming the norm, but Jonze refuses to judge people for that here, instead arguing that virtual interactions can still be valid, even if we never meet the person face to face.
Director Laura Poitras
There are plenty of insightful documentaries out there that deconstruct our relationship with technology, but few are quite so groundbreaking as this Oscar-winning tour de force, which uncovers a far darker side to the internet than we’re perhaps used to seeing. Unfolding in real time, Laura Poitras’s film on surveillance in the post-9/11 era took a dramatic turn when Edward Snowden contacted her and offered to leak classified government information he learned while working for the NSA.
The team behind Citizenfour had to be extremely careful while making the film, employing numerous security measures to ensure that their work could be completed without government interference, and the result is a genuinely thrilling and terrifying meditation on the loss of personal liberty. Richard Corliss of Time Magazine argued that Citizenfour “works even better as a horror picture”, and it’s hard to disagree.
Team Hurricane (2017)
Director Annika Berg
With her feature debut, Danish director Annika Berg all but reinvented the coming of age drama. Through a combination of frenzied anime-like imagery and documentary-style videos, Team Hurricane creates a radical new aesthetic that brashly reveals the inner lives of the eight teenage girls who stand at the eye of this film.
Eclectic doesn’t even begin to describe the style of Team Hurricane, and it’s easy to see why older generations might be put off by its experimental leanings. Like it or not though, Berg’s debut is also one of the most authentic portrayals of life for people who have been raised in an exclusively digital world, because they were actively involved in the making of the film too. For the young women who star in Team Hurricane, and for the younger generations who watch it too, no other film better captures what it’s like to grow up with social media existing as a natural extension of your personality.
Director Aneesh Chaganty
The search for missing children has become the subject of countless Hollywood thrillers over the years. In Aneesh Chaganty’s critically acclaimed take on the genre, John Cho’s character follows some of the tropes we might expect from this genre, but what sets Searching apart from other films of its ilk is that all of the action takes place entirely on a computer screen.
It was inevitable that ‘screen life’ films would become popular, but few could have predicted just how effective this new genre could be in the right hands. More than just a gimmick, the digital journey taken here is remarkably suspenseful, even though the film focuses primarily on familiar sites that have become commonplace in everyday life. Because of this, it’s easy to assume that Searching serves a cautionary purpose, but as Chaganty told Mashable, technology is “both the problem in the movie and the heart of the solution”, reminding audiences that the internet can be a source of connection and support too.