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
“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?!?)
Cute Little R2-D2
C-3PO (could it be those steel-hard abs? Those long
fingers? How can I compete with that?)
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
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
history must and will
“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’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
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
“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”?
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
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?”
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!).
A Hacker Saves the World!
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
“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
Larry Ellison). Enjoy!
Read my companion article on more computers in TV and old
Howard Fosdick is an independent computer consultant. Read his articles, how-to's, and tutorials here.