Special Features – How the Internet has radically changed Sci-Fi movies

Ollie England on How the Internet has radically changed Sci-Fi movies….

Before the widespread availability of the Internet, there was a whole genre of movies known as Cyberpunk (Hackers / Jonny Mnemonic / Lawnmower Man amongst others) in which the future was a nightmarish blend of surveillance corporations and personal restrictions created through intrusive technology. The heroes of these narratives were the brave hackers and radicals who used the early versions of the Internet in order to rise against the system and try and restore dignity to ordinary people (or some such similar goal). There was also film such as The Net and Enemy of the State in which citizens were perversely stalked by the government using satellite systems to track their every move. Even comedy films such as You’ve Got Mail, a blatant advert for AOL (and Starbucks), got in on the action. There seemed to be a period from 1995-1998 where America was fascinated with the Internet – and then along came The Matrix, a film that took the mechanical idea of a network of connected human minds and ideas (the web) to its darkest logical conclusion and turned humans into harvested batteries for future robots.

This explosive interest in the early incarnation of the Internet and technology seems quaint in retrospect, but these films all had something in common – they all predicted a future where ordinary people (mostly) would have a daily interaction with networked computers, and this relationship would be monitored or abused by some kind of omniscient observer (government, corporations etc.).

The interesting thing now is that no-one 15 years ago could have predicted how integrated all of our technologies would become. Now, the idea that a government body could pinpoint you with terrifying precision and chase you is no longer a threat: They could just check our Facebook check-in or Pintrest board. This means that Sci-Fi has to work much harder to blow audiences’ minds anymore – this is most obvious in the rise of apocalypse films that have come to replace ‘dystopian’ films. The corporations that run the world in Blade Runner and Brazil during the 1980s have been replaced with the zombie outbreak of Resident Evil, I Am Legend and World War Z of the Internet era. A bleak isolation that would stem from faceless corporations controlling the world no longer scares people…what scares people now is the terrifying intimacy that we share now that we are closer together than ever. The zombie contagion films could be seen as a metaphor for our fear of global connectivity.

The way in which audiences interact with the Internet has grown and adapted so quickly that it has fundamentally changed the level of reality that we will tolerate in cinema. If a character is in need of some information and they embark on a quest in order to find it – we ask in our heads ‘why not just Google it?’ Characters in serious Sci-Fi films can no longer assume that the audiences knows nothing about technology or engineering or astrophysics as we can consult our smartphones as soon as the film is over (or during if it really bugs us) and consult the online hive-mind to check the plausibility of any crucial parts of the plot.

Hopefully film studios will realize this soon and start to respect the audience more, thereby creating smarter and more thought-provoking films. Either way, it is fascinating to see the relationship with the internet evolve throughout a decade in filmmaking and it will be fascinating to see how our acceptance of broadband Wi-Fi capability and ever increasing processing speeds and shrinking computers will affect our ability to tell each other stories in the near future.

Ollie England