Hasitha Fernando on techno-thrillers in film…
If you’ve read enough books and watched your fair share of films, chances are you’ve heard the term ‘techno-thriller’ being tossed around from time to time. For the uninitiated this particular genre is a hybridization of many others, drawing inspiration from awe inspiring sci-fi dramas to white-knuckling espionage thrillers. One of the most striking features of this category is that narratives which fall under it, are immensely rich in detail and nuance, since they all have some form of basis in contemporary science. Movies belonging to this sub-genre have made a comeback as of late due to the efforts of talented film makers like Alex Garland and Leigh Whannell, but more on that later…first, let’s go back and look at how things started.
As a literary genre, techno-thrillers gained widespread popularity in the late 60’s amidst the backdrop of the cold-war tensions brewing between USA and the Soviet Union, and it’s quite likely that this atmosphere of unease fueled the minds of authors like Alistair McLean, Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy who hailed from that era. The Satan Bug – penned by McLean under his pseudonym Ian Stuart in 1962 – was one of the precursors of this genre, which married all the various elements now synonymous with techno-thrillers. The premise concerns a nerve-racking chase to recover several flasks of a lethal virus by a private investigator, before they fall into the wrong hands. A film version based loosely on the novel starring George Maharis and directed by Hollywood stalwart John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven) hit theaters in 1965 but was soon swept under the wake of box-office juggernauts like The Sound of Music and Doctor Zhivago, which came out the same year. Still, like its literary counterpart, the film too was one of the very first of its kind. But it’s tragic it didn’t receive the attention it should have.
With the release of Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain in 1969, books of this sub-genre finally received the much-awaited attention they deserved, leading to the fledgling author’s effort becoming a New York Times Best Seller. The story follows the exploits of a team of scientists as they try to contain a deadly virus of extra-terrestrial origin. The film adaptation released in 1971 helmed by Academy Award winner Robert Wise (West Side Story) however, didn’t generate much of an impact at the time but its significance in terms of scientific accuracy was lauded. Undeterred Crichton once again returned to the genre which made him a household name, this time in the director’s chair. In the summer of 1973 Westworld arrived on the big screen in the USA, becoming MGM’s highest grossing film of that year.
Due to Westworld’s popularity a sequel as well as a short-lived TV series was conceived, but none lived up to the success of the original. There are a few reasons why Westworld can also be considered ‘ahead of its time’. The premise which involves near-human androids going berserk, is attributed to a ‘disease of the machinery’, which is probably the first ever reference to a computer virus in the history of film. (FYI the term ‘computer virus’ was coined in the year 1983). Westworld was also the first to incorporate computer digitized imagery to a feature film, which we see as the Gunslinger’s pixelated POV. All these aspects, coupled with Yul Brynner’s memorable turn as the chilling dead-eyed robot Gunslinger, and we have what can be described as Hollywood’s first successful techno-thriller. Also, worth mentioning here is the excellent HBO television series which expands on Crichton’s original premise in the film.
The best of legendary director Francis Ford Coppola’s efforts came to life within the span of one amazingly cinematic decade with the release of The Godfather in 1972, The Godfather Part II and The Conversation in 1974 and last but not least Apocalypse Now in 1979. The Conversation is likely the least recognizable out of the bunch, but it is still a masterwork of cinema that require repeated views. The film – which is about the moral dilemma a surveillance expert faces after accidentally capturing a potential murder on his recordings – can be viewed as a techno-thriller from the pre-digital era, because… that’s essentially what it is. And yet, despite the fact that it’s from another time entirely, the film has lost none of its relevance, especially in the context of the post 9/11 era of the PATRIOT Act, public surveillance and privacy intrusion. The Conversation is a taut, edge-of-the-seat paranoia thriller anchored by a terrific lead performance by Gene Hackman that needs to be experienced, especially if you are a fan of such films.
WarGames is yet another film, released a decade later in the year 1983, which made a significant impact in this genre. Although the film leans more towards its comedic elements, as a young hacker inadvertently kickstarts World War III, it never downplayed the seriousness of the themes it was addressing, which was probably why it had such a tremendous impact on then US President Ronald Reagan, who pushed for federal laws intending to outlaw hacking. The film also contains the very first reference of the term ‘firewall’, years before it was used in real-life computing.
Techno-thrillers returned to the focus of bibliophiles with the release of writer Tom Clancy’s debut novel The Hunt for Red October. Published in 1984, the book was an unabashed representation of its era, capturing the resurging cold war threat set in the context of the Reagan era with sublime perfection. However, it was its film adaptation that struck a chord with general audiences when it debuted in 1990. This drama on the high-seas directed by action movie veteran John McTiernan (Die Hard, Predator) anchored by Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin in the leads, went on to become one of the highest grossing films of that year, even nabbing multiple Academy award nominations for its technical achievements. Although, Crichton’s wildly successful novel Jurassic Park also debuted that same year, Spielberg’s treatment of the source material transformed it from an edgy techno-thriller to a more palatable crowd-pleasing action adventure film. Still, there were a few techno-thriller elements from the book which persisted through this transition, and that’s a good thing.
The next few years saw a handful of films in the vein of The Net, The Lawnmower Man and Hackers being released, but none were able to make much of a lasting impact on the masses, but things changed with Tony Scott’s 1998 hit film Enemy of the State starring Gene Hackman and upcoming star Will Smith. Though the plot itself plays out like a loose retread of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, it’s chock full of Scott’s trademark hyperkinetic editing and absurdist camera angles making the end product very much his. But what makes the film a cut above the rest is how eerily prophetic it is, even when being viewed in the current context. Enemy of the State may feature obsolete technology for a film concerning technology, but its themes of government intrusion and public surveillance, still continue to resonate; especially with the dawn of social media which can afford a greater ease of access to information, if needed.
Things quietened down a bit with this sub-genre, especially with the dawn of the cyberpunk sci-fi films popularized by the Alex Proyas’ Dark City (1998) and the Wachowski Brothers’ The Matrix (1999). But with the dawn of the new millennium came a new hope to the sub-genre, with one of the first bona fide blockbusters of the 21st century – Minority Report. Released in 2001, this stylish techno-thriller was based upon one of Philip K. Dick’s short-stories of the same name. The story, set in the future involves a technology that predicts crime, enabling the law to capture their perpetrators beforehand. Mixing heady philosophy with multiple genre elements-ranging from cyberpunk, neo-noir and whodunits- director Steven Spielberg masterfully crafts a near perfect film, driven by Tom Cruise’s electrifying performance.
Unfortunately, the same praise cannot be extended to the John Woo helmed Paycheck of 2003. Although the derivative actioner was adapted from another Philip K. Dick short-story, this film lacks the vision or punch the latter film possessed. It was all style and very little substance, with this rather pedestrian flick. In other words, a wasted opportunity. It would take close to a decade for a decent film in this sub-genre to resurface. But when it resurfaced it did so with panache and originality, with 2011’s Source Code. Helmed by relative newcomer Duncan Jones the film headlined by the uber-talented Jake Gyllenhaal is what a sci-fi thriller version of Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day would have looked like. A pulse pounding thrill ride from start to finish, Source Code delivered both as a slick actioner as well as a thought-provoking drama.
Now, looking at the past few years, especially from the year 2014 onwards, cinema has experienced a renaissance of sorts in the techno-thriller sub-genre due to the creative efforts of directors like Alex Garland and Leigh Whannell. Garland has been in the film industry for quite some time now, ever since his critically acclaimed Lord of the Flies-esque Gen-X novel The Island was adapted into a film by British auteur Danny Boyle in 2000. But it was Garland’s first screenplay for his second collaboration with Boyle, 28 Days Later was what cemented his place as one of our generations’ fiercely original screenwriters. His subsequently scripts for the films Sunshine (2007), Never Let Me Go (2010), and Dredd (2012) also went on to receive unanimous praise. But in 2014 Garland goes a step further taking on the directorial duties as well for his next project Ex Machina.
Ex Machina’s plot centres on an unassuming young programmer played by Domhnall Gleeson who gets chosen by his enigmatic CEO to take part in a scientific experiment involving the assessment of the artificial intelligence of a humanoid robot. But as always, there is more to this experiment than previously surmised. In a nutshell the film was a breath-taking comeback for the techno-thrillers in general as well being a reason for all fans of this sub-genre to celebrate. Packed with compelling performances and bolstered by terrific technical contributions, this cerebral psycho-techno thriller was rewarded with two Oscar nominations for its mesmerizing visual effects and sharp screenplay, deservingly winning a golden nudie for the former, at the 88th Academy Awards ceremony.
When talking about Garland and techno-thrillers it’s only apt to mention this auteur’s small screen extravaganza Devs, which debuted earlier this year. The ambitious mini-series explores many of the themes he explored previously with Ex Machina and is definitely a must-see for fans of his works. Here’s hoping Garland would once again return to the big screen, sooner rather than later.
2016’s flashy techno-thriller adventure Nerve is another effort that is worth mentioning here. Headlined by Dave Franco and Emma Roberts, the film which is an adaptation of Jeanne Ryan’s YA novel of the same name won praise for deftly balancing adrenaline fuelling action set pieces and sleek visuals along with provocative storytelling that analyses the nature of reality shows and social media tools. The directing duo Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost had previously dealt with similar themes in their documentary Catfish, so tackling similar themes in their feature film as well, seemed like a natural fit.
Within a span of two years director Leigh Whannell gave us a double-whammy in the form of two excellent techno-thrillers. 2018’s Upgrade was Whannell’s sophomore effort which dealt with a paralyzed technophobe implanted with an experimental chip to control his motor functions, combines dystopian cyberpunk elements with Cronenbergian body horror to creating an absolutely unique albeit uber violent action-thriller. Logan Marshall-Green’s deadpan delivery of the film’s darkly humorous lines whilst engaging in acts of bloody violence, was especially memorable. Don’t let its VOD type title throw you off, Upgrade is an underrated gem that would satiate the palettes of action movie junkies as well as, aficionados of hard sci-fi.
Whannell who played an instrumental role in the past two decades crafting two major horror franchises – namely Saw and Insidious– along with long-time collaborator James Wan, caught a lot of people off guard with Upgrade. Suffice to say many were impatient to see what this wunderkind writer/director’s next project would be. So, in 2019 when Whannell was announced as the director of The Invisible Man it certainly got my attention. Previously being part of Universal’s short-lived Dark Universe, it was later decided by the studio to make The Invisible Man a standalone film set in contemporary times. And thank God for that decision. When The Invisible Man debuted in February it blew people away with its twists-and-turns and clever subversion of expectations. Although the title of the film refers to an invisible ‘man’, the entire narrative itself centers on a woman played by the ever-brilliant Elisabeth Moss.
The story, also written by Whannell, makes the smart choice of eschewing the technical gimmickry by reducing it to a mere plot device. It is the actors’ performances that gets the lion’s share of the attention here. The toll taken on victims of abusive relationships is explored extensively here by Whannell and his decision to do so, was refreshingly original. Striking a balance between voyeuristic thriller and sci-fi horror, the film achieves greatness in all fronts in spite of its shoestring budget. The good news is that Whannell is just getting started. Fresh off the success of The Invisible Man, he has signed a two-year first-look deal with Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions, which will cover projects that Whannell proposes to write direct or produce. And if his previous films are any indication, the coming years will be an exciting time for all techno-thriller fans.
Hasitha Fernando is a part-time medical practitioner and full-time cinephile. Follow him on Twitter via @DoctorCinephile for regular updates on the world of entertainment.