FILMS

Dances with databases

Cyberspace is the last frontier as Hollywood hypes new thrillers

Brian D. Johnson August 14 1995
FILMS

Dances with databases

Cyberspace is the last frontier as Hollywood hypes new thrillers

Brian D. Johnson August 14 1995

Dances with databases

FILMS

Cyberspace is the last frontier as Hollywood hypes new thrillers

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

On the eve of a new millennium, data has become the ultimate object of desire. Data in the flesh, sexy and scary, pulsing through hot sites and hard drives. Data is the addiction of the nineties. There are no speed limits on the information highway, and the Internet is pop culture’s new roadhouse disco, the global village with a mirror ball. Everyone, it seems, wants to dance in the database, to stake a claim in the virtual world. And in Hollywood—where reality has never been anything but virtual—cyberspace is the last frontier, a back lot with a limitless horizon.

This is the year of the cyber-thriller movie. Last spring, Johnny Mnemonic featured Keanu Reeves as a courier packing an overdose of data on a silicon chip in his brain. Now, in The Net, Sandra Bullock stumbles across a terrorist conspiracy while surfing the Internet. And in Virtuosity, Denzel Washington chases a virtual psychopath who pops out of cyberspace to wreak havoc in the real world. Meanwhile, trailers are already pitching next fall’s Strange Days, about a black marketeer who sells interactive fantasies illegally downloaded from people’s cerebral cortexes.

Movies about the sinister implications of artificial intelligence are not new. Cautionary tales of runaway technology are as old as Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936).

And science fiction has often cast the computer as a soulless god with a dangerous agenda. Jean-Luc Godard’s bleakly futuristic thriller, Alphaville (1965), envisioned an Orwellian world governed by a supercomputer. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) introduced HAL, the mellow mainframe who could not be trusted (“Everything is under control,

Dave”). Julie Christie was “raped” by a computer in Demon Seed (1977). And in WarGames (1983), Matthew Broderick played a teenage hacker who tapped into an early-warning system and almost touched off Armageddon.

Hollywood’s image of the computer has evolved, from a closed box containing Big Brother to an open window in which anything

goes. Cyberspace, a location as exotic as the tropics, has become fertile ground for the conspiracy thriller. In last year’s Clear and Present Danger, the most gripping scene involved no guns, just Harrison Ford and Henry Czerny duelling for data—and against the clock—on separate terminals. In Disclosure (1994), Michael Crichton’s tale of sexual harassment at a computer firm, the most compelling scene involves Michael Douglas and Demi Moore playing hide-and-seek in a virtual-reality filing system. And in The Net,

the plot’s outcome hinges on how long it takes the heroine to store some data to a disk, as the black line creeps across the computer’s memory gauge.

In all sorts of movies, directors have become infatuated with magnified images of data scrolling across computer screens.

Blown up on the big screen, computing looks like a funky mating dance between typing and television: the hot lead of Gutenberg meets the cool light of the cathode ray.

While scenes of silicon suspense are by now familiar, The Net is the first Hollywood thriller to exploit the phenomenon of the Internet. Angela (Bullock) works on her home computer in San Francisco as a freelance cyber-jockey who cleanses bugs and viruses from corporate software. Following a tip from a colleague, Angela comes across a

secret Internet program that allows instant access to reams of confidential government databases. And her discovery makes her the target of a high-level terrorist conspiracy run by a megalomaniac who bears a resemblance to Microsoft czar Bill Gates.

On vacation in Mexico, Angela is robbed, almost killed, then returns to her hotel to learn that the computer shows she has checked out. She quickly learns that her entire identity has been deleted—credit cards, employment records, home ownership. Via the Net, the conspirators have given her a new name, complete with a falsified police record. Because she is such a recluse, the only people who can vouch for Angela’s identity are a psychiatrist friend (Dennis

Miller), who suspects she is deluded, and her mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease.

Despite the state-of-the-art premise, The Net is filled with thriller clichés: the car careering over the embankment, the midnight chase through the midway, the climactic struggle on the warehouse catwalk. And the story, routinely directed by Irwin Winkler, employs a stock villain, a slippery Englishman played by Jeremy Northam.

But Bullock is good—more than just another pretty interface. She modulates her role as a woman in jeopardy with a quirky sense of self-possession. And the movie’s best scenes take place on a computer screen, with her commanding the keyboard. Bullock may be playing a new breed of heroine, a quickwitted fighter who can handle guns and cars, but in the end what seems most crucial is that she can type. Even as the bad guys are breathing down her neck, she makes not one typo.

She even punctuates.

Virtuosity, meanwhile, is more about brute force. An action movie armed with cybernetic hardware, it upgrades one of science fiction’s oldest standbys—the Frankenstein myth. The setting is Los Angeles, 1999. Denzel Washington stars as Parker, an ex-cop serving time for avenging the murder of his family. Scientists enlist him to battle a computer-generated killer named Sid 6.7 (Russell Crowe) in a virtual-reality training program. After the killer escapes into the real world, Parker has to hunt him down.

Washington and Crowe both play their parts with gusto. But the story, directed by Brett Leonard CThe Lawnmower Man), is a tired reworking of the monster-in-a-box formula. Sid 6.7 is almost indestructible, which means

means that many, many bullets must be fired bring him down. And he is made of silicon, which means that when he loses a limb spurts blood that is swimming-pool blue, he uses shattered glass to regrow his flesh. The magic comes courtesy of computer morphing, but four years after Terminator the novelty of the technique is wearing thin. And Sid 6.7 is no T2.

These cyber-thrillers are crude prototypes. But as digital technology expands, and becomes part of the studio furniture, the genre will become more refined. Hollywood has been built on vicarious sex, glamor, danger and romance—on the virtue of virtual reality. In cyberspace, where everyone acts as a voyeur, it has found its mirror image. □