Coding on Film

DevToolsGuy / Thursday, December 12, 2013

Let’s face it: movie producers just don’t make good coders.

If you’ve ever watched a movie that features technology – more specifically, anything that falls under the movie-terminology umbrella of “hacking” – chances are, you’ve laughed at how badly the filmmakers have botched up its portrayal. Sure, there are some exceptions where the technology enhances the story, follows some logic, and makes sense for the time period the film is set in (think The Matrix and War Games). But generally, movies that feature coding seem to follow the same principle: the more famous the leading actor or actress, the less money the producers had to spend on silly things like fact-checking.

The first movie that comes to mind is 1995’s Hackers. Now, this is a film that came out when the internet was new to the general public, and it was pretty exciting stuff for the big screen. A bunch of quirky, perfectly mid-90’s computer hackers (featuring Angelina Jolie!) take on an evil skateboard-riding genius who’s trying to destroy the world using a computer virus. And they’re only in high school!

But the filmmakers’ grasp on coding is really tenuous at best here. There’s no real code to speak of! By scrolling endless rows of random letters, numbers and other gibberish (mathematical equations?!) across the screen during the “hacking” scenes, all they’re really doing us showing us how easy it is to hack into TV stations, bring down the NY Stock Exchange, and save the world by flailing our hands around the keyboard. Or if you’re Jonny Lee Miller, by wearing sunglasses indoors while listening to The Prodigy on an endless loop.

Google Glass had a few more iterations to go before launch.

For a quick round-up of the best of the worst, check out Kyle Claypool’s post over at – if you’re in the mood for Matthew Lillard, blue lipstick, and some pretty epic rollerblading, I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Next, let’s examine Independence Day. How do we take down a race of angry aliens? By giving their mothership a “cold” with the blinding speed and unrivaled power of MacOS 7.6 of course!

To be fair, the original plan was to RickRoll the aliens and hope they just gave up on Earth.

This 1996 gem features Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum working together to save the earth from evil extraterrestrials. The very same extraterrestrials who just happened to have crash-landed at Area 51 years earlier and left behind a perfectly-preserved, now-functioning spaceship. Whose ships also miraculously run on the same platform as Jeff Goldblum’s PowerBook. What luck!

Wolf Gnards has a pretty awesome list of explanations for how the computer virus could have feasibly worked (my favorite being simply “Jeff Goldblum.”), but it is worth noting that the producers actually did try to address the flimsy reasoning with a deleted scene where Jeff Goldblum discovers that the Area 51 ship is “running off the same programming language”. But the fact that it’s a deleted scene goes to show you just how much they really cared about that pesky thing called logic.

Finally, let’s take a look at Superman III. This 1983 film may or may not have inspired a few months of terrifying nightmares (creepy robot-woman, anyone?) but the way the producers brought programming to the screen in this one is more likely to make you cry from laughter, not fear. Granted, this one came out years before either Independence Day or Hackers, but

OK, so here’s how it goes. After his unemployment checks run out, a down on his luck Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) takes a computer class he finds advertised on the back of a matchbook and discovers that he has an uncanny talent for computer programming.

Evidently his success came as a shock to him too.

I won’t go into detail the way the crew at Den of Geek recently did, but suffice it to say that ol’ Gus’s first foray into coding – and the chain reaction of events that follow after it – are laughably misrepresented. Basically, Gus somehow goes from using BASIC to plot two bi-lateral coordinates (unthinkable in this movie’s reality) to thwarting the payroll security at his new employer’s company by simply entering the command “OVERIDE ALL SECURITY”. We’re guessing they charge by the letter at Webscoe – how else can you explain the missing “R” in override?

I’ll give the producers credit where it’s due – they did actually feature a little bit of actual code in the film when Gus is first taking his computer class. But after that, it looks like their programming consultant came down with the flu and the filmmakers were forced to wing it for the rest of the movie. Because soon, Gus is using similar simple commands to mess with the world’s oil tankers, cause the figures in a traffic signal to knock each other out, and search the Xeno galaxy for information about kryptonite. And to think, most of us use the internet to find funny pictures of cats. For shame.

So there you have it, my top 3 movies that feature some pretty bad representations of computer programming. But this is by no means an exhaustive list – I want to hear what you think! Leave a comment with your favorite “bad” movie and let’s see if we can work together to convince Hollywood to get it right next time!