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Netsploitation: The Internet in Film

Netsploitation
You can always count on Hollywood to warp real-life technology into something wholly unrecognizable. Whether it's virtual reality or social networking, we can be sure that, once translated to the big screen, representations will become exploitative or far-fetched. As for such movies that deal with the Internet, we'll classify them as 'Netsploitation' films. The Netsploitation genre began in the '80s with the growth of personal computer usage and the emergence of hacking, but before the existence of the Internet as we know it. By the mid '90s, however, the Net had reached that perfect equilibrium of being an emerging, relatively misunderstood technology that was nevertheless publicly accessible. A boom of Netsploitation films followed. As the '90s marched on, the Internet slowly became an inextricable part of daily life, and films' treatment of the Net drifted into more mundane realms. However, after 9/11, there arose a wave of movies that preyed on fears of cyber-terrorism and unease about our reliance on the Web. Here's our rundown of the best -- and worst -- Netsploitation films of the past three decades.

The '80s and Early '90s: The Internet Is a Mysterious Place

'WarGames' (1983)

WarGames
'WarGames' is one of the earliest examples of hacker films, and recalls the glory days when a DOS prompt was futuristic enough to fascinate audiences. Watching it today, it's refreshing to see computing represented by plain old CRT monitors rather than crazy CG renderings of cyberspace and make-believe operating systems. 'WarGames' stars Matthew Broderick as David Lightman, a more computer-literate version of Ferris Bueller, who gets to live out every teenager's fantasy by hacking his grades (sensibly only changing an F to a C). However, in an attempt to pirate some unreleased computer games, Lightman inadvertently almost causes World War III. Truly, 'WarGames' was a cautionary tale of Internet piracy before such a thing even existed.

'Sneakers' (1991)

Like 'WarGames', 'Sneakers' may predate the existence of the Internet as we now know it. (In fact, both movies were written by Lawrence Lasker.) Still, that doesn't stop it from being more fun and genuine than almost any other film on this list. Sure, it's a Hollywood popcorn flick, but it also has a stellar cast, including Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, River Phoenix and Ben Kingsley. Redford plays a hacker who has been on the lam since he broke into Richard Nixon's bank account in 1969. He runs a team of white-hat specialists who test the security of various institutions, a prescient career choice that probably seemed far-fetched 20 years ago. Whereas most Netsploitation flicks desperately try, and utterly fail, to play up the "kewl" factor, 'Sneakers' is understated, using technology in intelligent ways to keep the film from feeling dated.

The '90s: The Internet Is Like Magic, Except in Weirder Clothes

'Hackers' (1995)

Hackers
Ah, 'Hackers' -- the movie that introduced us to the pleasures of Angelina Jolie, Fisher Stevens as a trench coat-clad hacker named "The Plague" (who even skitches on a limo at one point), and, of course, the phrase "Hack the planet!" Truly, 'Hackers' was a defining moment in the decade. Sure, the terminology and technology are dated, orange vests were never in style, and it feels kind of like watching your grandma trying to krump, but we can't help but be won over by its ridiculous charms. How can you not love its absurd CG representations of cyberspace, where information flies across the screen in a 'Tron'-like fashion? Or, how about the ever-manic Matthew Lillard? Or Penn Jillette's turn as a security officer? Maybe it's because we're children of the '90s, but, back then, nobody knew better. A couple of kids sticking it to The Man, while a now-classic electronic soundtrack accompanies their rollerblading mayhem through the heart of still super-cool New York City, truly defined the Web for the '90s generation.

'The Net' (1995)

The Net
'The Net' was seemingly made by people who only had the vaguest, most buzzword-inspired ideas of what the Internet was. ("FLOPPY DISK!" "VIRUS!" "DESKTOP BACKGROUND!") [Ed. Note: Not far from today's "WEB 2.0! GOOGLE-ABILITY! TWITTER!"] Its tale of online terrorists, who steal your identity and change your doctor's prescriptions, probably hipped more moms to the "evils" of the Internet than anything else. Still, as ridiculous and exploitative as 'The Net' gets, we can't completely hate on it. Any movie that opens with its main character playing 'Wolfenstein 3D' is already on the right track, and Sandra Bullock ordering delivery from "Pizza.net" is the sort of technologically utopian vision that wouldn't come true for years.

'Johnny Mnemonic' (1995)

Johnny Mnemonic
No list of Netsploitation films would be complete without at least one cyberpunk flick, and 'Johnny Mnemonic' is based on a short story by William Gibson, the godfather of the genre. Based on a story written in the early '80s, filmed in the '90s and set in the early 21st century, the film traded in imagination for dated tropes and laughable stereotypes. The cast reads like a who's who of '90s fallen icons: pre-'Matrix' Keanu Reeves as Johnny and his 160-gigabyte brain, Ice-T as a character named J. Bone (in what was incredibly a step down from his role as a talking kangaroo in 'Tank Girl'), an unintelligible "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, and Henry Rollins as a buff doctor who spouts one of the most amazing (NSFW) rants in the history of cinema. Also worth mentioning is "Street Preacher," an assassin dressed like a biblical shepherd, a hacker dolphin (yes, a dolphin) named Jones, and the amount of times we burst into tears trying to watch this atrocity.

'You've Got Mail' (1998)

You've Got Mail
Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan and, most importantly, dial-up AOL combined to form the Voltron of '90s romantic comedies capitalizing on a now-ubiquitous phrase. 'You've Got Mail' depicts one of the few online romances that doesn't end with a participant being confronted by Chris Hansen. You see, Tom and Meg hate each other in real life, but are smitten while chatting in the virtual world (i.e., AOL, which basically was the Internet for 95-percent of the population at the time). The film is as far-fetched as they come -- revealed by the full, declarative sentences the characters use while chatting online. While we appreciate the fact that mainstream cinema tackled the growing online dating community, we can't help but hate this film for immortalizing one of the most annoying sound bites in computing history.

The '00s to Today: The Internet Is Lots of People in Black Suits

'Swordfish' (2001)

Swordfish
'Swordfish' drags us into the cultural miasma of the new millennium like the yuppie-bottle-service version of 'Hackers' -- wherein Angie and Johnny dye their hair normal colors, grow up, put on khakis, and start investing in dot coms. In fact, John Travolta's character literally looks like an older, bloated version of "The Plague." The story goes something like this: Hugh Jackman is the "MOST DANGEROUS HACKER IN AMERICA" and he must SAVE HIS DAUGHTER FROM PORN by using all his hacking prowess to pull off THE WORLD'S MOST DEADLY BANK TRANSFER. Eerily prefacing the post-9/11 world, where hackers are both friend and foe, the audience is supposed to root for Travolta because he uses his powers to kill terrorists. Ugh.

'Firewall' (2006)

Firewall
'Firewall' stars Harrison Ford as the least believable cyber-security expert we've ever seen. He is forced to break into the bank that employs him when his family is kidnapped. More than anything, 'Firewall' is an example of a dull thriller that plays to fears of identity theft and privacy invasion. Ford uses a few technological tricks, such as GPS tracking and hacking into the kidnapper's offshore bank accounts, but the film leaves those trappings behind when our aged hero ends up resorting to fisticuffs. The only thing that could have saved this movie from obscurity is if Ford had demanded that his enemies "get off my Internet!"

'Live Free or Die Hard' (2007)

Live Free or Die Hard
'Live Free or Die Hard' captures the post-millennial anxiety about cyber-terrorism with deft insight and acuity. Wait, no it doesn't. What it does do, though, is give us a confused Bruce Willis having to babysit a hacker (played by Justin Long, the insufferable "I'm a Mac" guy) as they contend with one of the most irritating movie villains of all time. The plot has something to do with a scorned NSA security expert whose warnings of cyber-terrorism go unheeded. This somehow leads him to teach the country a lesson, courtesy of a ludicrously complex plan that involves blowing up hackers, blowing up power stations and pretending to blow up the White House. The technological aspects of the movie are as over-the-top as the scenes of stuff getting incinerated. There are also long rants about Internet "fire sales," and Kevin Smith plays a hacker named "Warlock," who, of course, lives in his mom's basement. Despite all this (or maybe because of it), it has become one of our favorite action movies of the decade. That's mostly because, when Willis stops staring agog at Long's geekiness and takes matters into his own hands, the Mac finally shuts up.

'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' (2009)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' is the film adaptation of Swedish author Stieg Larsson's mystery novel of the same name. Not only is it a gripping movie, but it also incorporates hacking elements that feel both authentic and integral to the story. Lisbeth Salander is the titular character, a 24-year-old hacker with a rough past, who becomes entangled in a 40-year-old murder mystery when she spies on investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist by remotely hacking his laptop. Impressively, the filmmakers also made a choice concerning computer use that no other film had made: actually using a recognizable OS (in this case, Apple's OS X). This simple act goes a long way towards selling us on the authenticity of the film's computing scenes. We hope 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' heralds a new era of realism in Netsploitation films, but, with a Hollywood remake already on the way, we aren't holding our breaths.

Tags: features, film, firewall, hackers, JohnnyMnemonic, live free or die hard, LiveFreeOrDieHard, movies, sneakers, swordfish, TheGirlWithTheDragonTattoo, TheNet, top, wargames, YouveGotMail

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