The Good, the Bad, and the Computers

A look at how computers are portrayed in film

By Jason L. Colon

      Computers are supposed to make our lives easier. However, in the movies, computers can either be our best friends or our worst enemies. For more than 40 years, computers have been involved in the film industry. Not only have they helped make movies, but they have also become characters. From 1956's "Forbidden Planet" to "1984" & 1991's "Terminator" movies, computers have become important icons in entertainment.
      In the science fiction classic "Forbidden Planet", we were introduced to Robby the Robot. Robby had many duties as a servant and guardian. Its other jobs included greeting visitors, driving around his master, Dr. Morbius, cooking, and even preparing drinks. These drinks could be as simple as coffee or as complex as 60 gallons of bourbon. Even though it was responsible for many things, Robby was quite obedient and was not capable of harming, as Dr. Morbius put it, "rational beings." In "Forbidden Planet", it is shown how robots can be useful tools and loyal companions. However, as other films will show, computers may also have the tendency of putting themselves first.
      One of these films is Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." In this movie, explorers Bowman and Poole (played by Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood), along with three other crew members, are on a mission to Jupiter. They are also joined by a sixth crew member, the HAL 9000 computer. This computer is able to see, hear and speak to the other crew members and watch over the ship. Voiced by Douglas Rain, HAL is able to reproduce the same functions as a human brain. However, it is incapable of error and holds this with great pride. Just like a human, HAL also asks questions, expresses concerns, shows emotions and even hears rumors. It is even referred to as "him" throughout the movie.
      Even though the HAL 9000 is usually the most reliable computer of its kind, it also has the tendency to pursue its own best interests. After finding that it might be shut down from the mission, HAL decides to betray its companions. It realizes this by reading the lips of Bowman and Poole as they discussed the possibility of HAL making its first error.
      "Kubrick is a near genius because he does have this human-type computer go bad," said film critic UI professor Edwin Jahiel. "Kubrick is the only person who has ever done this seriously."
      HAL found that it had no choice but to kill the other crew members. The computer kills the entire crew, except for Bowman. It succeeds by attacking Poole with a flying space pod and shutting down the crew's lifeline during their monitored hibernation. Bowman realizes that his only choice is to shut down HAL by removing its memory. As Bowman removes the memory, HAL gives its last words, explaining its "birth" on January 12, 1992 in Urbana, Illinois (although the original Arthur Clarke book said 1997, the reasoning behind Cyberfest). 2001 gave an interesting outlook on things to come in the future. However, not all advanced computers in movies are made in the future.
      George Lucas' "Star Wars" gave viewers a look at what happened long ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Along with memorable characters like Darth Vader, Han Solo and Yoda, Lucas introduced us to the "droids", C3-PO and R2-D2. The human-like C3-PO was only used as a translator before becoming a hero, while R2-D2 carried information and communicated with other computer systems. Even though the "Star Wars" trilogy was set in the past, these robots were very advanced. They were also able to express deep feelings toward each other.
      In "Star Wars," C3-PO becomes very worried about R2-D2 after R2-D2 was shot by laser blasts while flying in an X-Wing spaceship. It even offers its own parts to save his friend. In "The Empire Strikes Back," R2-D2 shows similar feelings as it rebuilds C3-PO after C3-P0 was shot to pieces. The Star Wars trilogy continued the trend of having compassionate, computerized characters help fight the bad guys. However, some films broke this trend by making computers the worst enemy humans have ever faced.
      In 1984, the movie "The Terminator" gave people another perspective on how computers will affect the future. "The Terminator" tells the story of a machine, known as a terminator, that is sent to the past to kill the mother of a military leader before he is born.
      The film's sequel, "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" explains the "birth" of the terminator and how an advanced computer system will be responsible for the end of the world. The system, Skynet, was made as a new advance in computerized military weapons. As it became more advanced, human decisions were taken out of military strategy. Eventually, the weapons became completely unmanned.
      Similar to the HAL 9000 in 2001, the computer system learns of rumors about it being shut down. In a panic of being unplugged, Skynet launches missiles at Russia. This causes Russia to fight back, resulting in a nuclear war. This war winds up killing most of the Earth's population. The survivors of the war lived only to fight again. This time it was against the machines. Skynet uses its powers to fight the humans that created it. It is this war which puts the terminator on a mission to kill the leader of the humans. The Terminator series gave an unappealing view of how computers may end up taking over the world. There are still some people who are afraid of using computers. These two movies gave them a good reason.
      Just like actors and actresses, computers can be either good guys or bad guys. The computers we use in everyday life may not have the same abilities as Robby the Robot or the HAL 9000, but they do affect our everyday lives. However, instead of causing nuclear war, our computers always seem to show that they can make mistakes too. But this rarely happens in movies. When was the last time a computer froze up in a movie?
      "The way actual computers are used in movies, almost nothing goes wrong you just press a button and you get everything you want," Jahiel said. "Computers are used in an unrealistic way."

See also: The cyber cinema site: An interactive site devoted to the history of computers and artificial intelligence in film