Apr 13, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

Ready Player One may have had its fair share of skeptics heading into its release, but plenty of fangeeks -- and critics, too -- quickly came around to its “CGI razzle-dazzle.” In fact, VR, AR, and New Media Forbes contributor Charlie Fink went so far as to declare it to be, “an instant sci-fi masterpiece [which] will be revered by science fiction fans for generations.”  

While Ready Player One may be the latest film to foray into the virtual world, it’s far from the first. Read on for a closer look at the exhilarating journey through the history of the internet and film.

The Early Days….

When Tron burst onto the scene in 1982, it captivated audiences with its tale of computer hacker-turned-virtual freedom fighter Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges).  

Enthused Roger Ebert at the time, “In an age of amazing special effects, Tron is a state-of-the-art movie. It generates not just one imaginary computer universe, but a multitude of them. Using computers as their tools, the Disney filmmakers literally have been able to imagine any fictional landscape, and then have it, through an animated computer program. And they integrate their human actors and the wholly imaginary worlds of Tron so cleverly that I never, ever, got the sensation that I was watching some actor standing in front of, or in the middle of, special effects. The characters inhabit this world.”

A year later came War Games, starring a fresh-faced Matthew Broderick who unwittingly accesses a military supercomputer and plays a “game” called Global Thermonuclear War, which turns out to be not so much a simulation as reality. Never before has “a nice game of chess” sounded so appealing.

“There's not a scene here where [director John] Badham doesn't seem to know what he's doing, weaving a complex web of computerese, personalities and puzzles; the movie absorbs us on emotional and intellectual levels at the same time. And the ending, a moment of blinding and yet utterly elementary insight, is wonderful,” wrote Ebert.

Hackers and More….

Nearly a decade later, movies centered around technology went mainstream. 1995 saw the release of both The Net and Hackers. The former, which follows cybersecurity programmer Angela Bennett (Sandra Bullock) after happening upon a dangerous conspiracy, was shockingly prescient. Contends Wired, “Really, though, the movie is more about how the rise of technology impacts our lives, and our changing ideas and concerns about privacy….As [Bennett] says, our entire lives are recorded on computers, from our work to our taste in movies. In 1995, this was a shocking problem that people had to learn to deal with. [Today], it's basically how Facebook works.”  

And while the eponymous capabilities of Jonny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie in Hackers may have had its share of incredulous viewers, the implications hold up, says Medium: “Still, like all good science fiction (as the movie is still categorized on Wikipedia), the movie offers predictions for the near future, and while that future may seem as outdated as the movie’s 1995 setting, it was pointing in the right direction.”

Three years later came You’ve Got Mail (1998), a complete departure from its thriller predecessors and the first romantic comedy centered around an anonymous email courtship. While the concept wasn’t entirely original (it was lifted from a 1940 movie about conventional penpals), the cyberspace setting was. And long before “catfishing” had entered the public lexicon, CCN cautioned, “This film also may provide a big boost to cyberdating. But trust me. The chance of finding a Meg Ryan or a Tom Hanks on the other end in cyberspace is nil. If you actually want to meet someone from online, be cautious, meet in public, take low expectations, take a weapon and be ready to run like the wind.”

No discussion of the internet and movies is complete without mention of The Matrix. This mind-blowing movie is regarded today as a spot-on metaphor for the internet-addicted world in which now live. Fifteen years after the movie’s 1999 release, Introducing Philosophy Through Pop-Culture author David Kyle Johnson told Huffington Post of its message, “Think about the kind of reality that someone that might live in if they spend too much time watching their favorite cable news television show that sells them a certain kind of reality, the kind of reality that they want to believe in. In a certain way they are living in a kind of non-reality.” Sound familiar?

Social Media Stakes Its Claim

The rise of social media represented a new era for the internet and film, with movies like The Social Network (2010) and The Circle (2017) taking on the real-life creation of social networking site Facebook, as well as a fictional omnipotent social media platform with eye-opening parallels to Mark Zuckerberg’s now imperiled brainchild.

The 2009 Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary, We Live in Public, meanwhile, follows fallen dotcom entrepreneur Josh Harris -- AKA “the greatest Internet pioneer you’ve never heard of” -- as he conducts a pre-Big Brother “surveillance experiment” hailed by director Ondi Timoner as “a physical prediction of life online.”  (Look for it in the future as a movie under the direction of Ben Stiller and starring Jonah Hill.)

Forecasts for the Future

And while some technocentric movies did not account for the internet in their representations of the future (Blade Runner, for one), others offer predictions for what may lie ahead. 2013’s Her, for example, forecasts a world in which man and machine (an intelligent computer operating system, to be exact) fall in love.

2016’s Nerve, meanwhile, offers “a comic-book vision of how the internet has become a gladiatorial arena of voyeurism,” according to Variety. Insists writer Owen Gleiberman, “The movie captures how in an all-computer-all-the-time era, it’s inevitable — indeed, almost evolutionary — that people will be driven to seek out some way to be audaciously physical, to be out in the world and there.”

And circling back to Ready Player One,  insiders point out that it “imagines a future [in 2044] that sounds an awful lot like it’s built on the blockchain,” according to Inverse. And while the book the movie is based on was published after the unveiling of blockchain, “it’s pretty cool that [author] recognized the potential of the blockchain as a game-changing technology,” proposes writer Kevin Litman-Navarro. Which begs the question: Will the book’s other imaginings come true? We may have to wait 30 years to find out.

And, of course, television shows have been getting in on the action, too, with everything from Mr. Robot to Black Mirror. And this retrospective is just a drop in the bucket (or a body plug in the Matrix, as the case may be) when it comes to the internet and movies. As the genre continues to evolve, more movies will tackle what it meant, means and will mean to live in the digital world.

Have we missed any good ones? If you have a favorite movie or television show about the internet, please comment below.











Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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