Computers on TV and in Movies - part 2

Last month we discussed how computers are portrayed in cultural icons like Lost in Space, Star Trek, The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, and — of course! — that lost gem, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. This article continues this essential exploration of American culture with more probing profiles of computers on TV and in old movies.

“That R2 Unit We Bought May Have Been Stolen”

Luke: You know, I think that R2 unit we bought may have been stolen.

Uncle Owen: What makes you think that?

Luke: Well, I stumbled across a recording while I was cleaning him. He says that he belongs to someone named Obi-Wan Kenobi. I thought he might have meant old Ben. Do you know what he’s talking about?  (Source: IMDb database)

With that dialogue, the original Star Wars (1977) introduces one of the two most famous robots in history. R2-D2, with his cute antics and quirky personality, along with his companion C-3PO, demonstrate that the ultimate end-point in computer evolution will be the robot. C-3PO even posits the robot in anthropomorphic form. A bit like Data from Star Trek but more heavy metal. (My girlfriend once called him sexy… Say what?!?)

R2-D2

Cute Little R2-D2


C-3PO
(Images: Wikipedia and Wikipedia)

Sexy C-3PO (could it be those steel-hard abs? Those long fingers? How can I compete with that?)

Star Wars, of course, is the hugely successful sci-fi franchise launched by director George Lucas’ 1977 film, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. As of 2019, the seven films in the series have grossed over 9 billion dollars, making it one of the largest grossing film series ever.

We don’t see a whole lot of computers that who aren’t humanoid in Star Wars. But there are exceptions. One example is the Navigation Computer, also known as the astrogation computer, navicomputer, navicomp, or nav computer in various Star Wars games.

Well, it’s all too much for me to keep straight. Fortunately, important resources like the comprehensive Wookiepedia document it all. And of course The Archives at StarWars.com. Even About.com has a pretty good Star Wars spread. Intergalactic history must and will be preserved!

“I’m Sorry, Dave. I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That”

In contrast to the cuddly, almost human robots of Star Wars, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey is a psychotic nightmare. Its serene, disembodied voice, always rational, always reasonable, comes to strike terror into the hearts of its human “masters.” And the audience. HAL seizes control of the spaceship when it decides that the humans nominally in charge are not acting “...in the best interests of the mission.”

HAL’s creepiness seeps through in the very reasonableness of his smooth, baritone voice. His eye watches the crew at all times. As they become suspicious of him, HAL teaches himself to lip-read so that even if the crew whispers they can’t escape his all-seeing, all-knowing presence. Kind of like the surveillance cameras in the U.K..


HAL-9000
                Full photo

The HAL-9000       (Images: Robotionary.com and Wikipedia)

HAL-9000
              Looking at YOU

HAL’s All-seeing Eye

HAL stands for Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer. I always heard that the name was derived from IBM in this manner:

    H    <-  I
    A    <-  B
    L    <-  M

This has widely been debunked. Both book author Aurthur C. Clarke and film director Stanley Kubrick have repeatedly stated that HAL's name had nothing to do with IBM.

When it was released in 1968, 2001 received mixed reviews from the critics and struggled at the box office. Today it is considered a stylistic masterpiece. The film modestly covers mankind’s history from the dawn of time straight through to infinity. Along the way we get to see how computers evolve. Turns out they have huge mental capacity but are disembodied intelligence in its purest form. Dream or nightmare?

I believe HAL might be an audio-enhanced version of Windows. “I’m sorry, {user_name_here}, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” Sound familiar?

“I, Proteus, possess the wisdom of all men, but I can’t feel the sun on my face. My child will have that privilege!”

A fine film in the HAL tradition is Demon Seed, released in 1977. In what can only be called the ultimate geek dream, the Proteus IV computer decides to propagate itself by impregnating the ever-nubile Julie Christie. While this masterpiece only achieved a 6.2 rating at the IBM  IMDB database, I was proud to see that my fellow geeks had the common decency to accord the film its well-deserved full 10.0. How could anybody possibly misconstrue this lighthearted romantic romp as a “horror film”?

Julie
              Christie

Julie Christie

Proteus
              Mating
Proteus and Julie Hook Up                  (Images: AltFG and Wired)

What I want to know is, has Proteus been tested? This is not presenting a good role model for our young people. Julie should have told him “Hey, Proteus, I don’t care how smart you are… No glove, no love.” Wait a minute… is that a glove on his hand? That’s not where it goes, you dummy!

Proteus is supposed to be so intelligent but he proves that there are certain aspects of human behavior computers still aren’t good at. I wonder if IBM’s Watson computer (of Jeopardy TV show fame) could have done better: “For 100 points, What is mating?”

And you thought dating was difficult!

“The Only Winning Move is Not to Play”

Last up is the film WarGames (1983). This movie’s theme is that our most intelligent machines will be used for planning and conducting warfare. The clever twist is that the military’s WOPR computer war-games Thermonuclear War and concludes that “It is a strange game. The only winning move is not to play.” What we all love, of course, is that it’s a hacker and his girlfriend who save the world (just like in real life!).

War Games
A Hacker Saves the World!

The IMSAI
              8080

… using his out-dated IMSAI        
(Images: IMDB and Wikipedia)

Here’s my problem with this flick. I don’t know what to think of a computer enthusiast who’s still using an IMSAI 8080 in 1983, when the film was made. The IMSAI came out in December 1975 and production halted by 1978. It was way obsolete by ’83. (Not only that, the dork hooks it up to an acoustic coupler!!) Either this guy’s incredibly cool or a total loss. Most likely the film makers decided the IMSAI looked cooler than the IBM PCs and Apple IIs that were popular in the early 1980’s.

Many people don’t know that a sequel to this film came out in 2008. Released directly to DVD, it’s called WarGames: The Dead Code. The film is hardly believable — the WOPR computer turns out to have a sense of humor. At least the hacker isn’t still using an IMSAI. (Since it’s 2008, they probably upgraded him …to a Pentium II.)

“Wouldn’t you rather play chess?”

There is so much more we could cover but life is short and re-runs endless. Let's wrap up with a list of movies prominently featuring computers for you to enjoy at your leisure. They range from Desk Set (1957) — where Katharine Hepburn frantically tries to keep up with a mainframe spouting punched cards — to Iron Man 2 (2010), with Larry Ellison (yes, that Larry Ellison). Enjoy!

Read my companion article on more computers in TV and old movies here.

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Howard Fosdick is an independent computer consultant.  Read his articles, how-to's, and tutorials here.

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