From Tron to Mr. Robot: how cinema represents the digital world

Article by David-Julien Rahmil /
Numerama /
July 13, 2016 /
Click here to view original /

[French to English Translation]

Mr. Robot’s season 2 starts tonight. The opportunity for us to come back on several decades of representation of the digital in the cinema and in the series, between nostalgic kitsch and realism.

Internet is without a doubt the tool that has revolutionized our world the most in recent decades. Yet, when it comes to representing him in the movies or in the TV series, things immediately become very complicated. Between clichés dating from the 80s, anxieties cyberpunk and visual experimentation, how has the representation of the net and its users evolved over the past 30 years?

If you are old enough to have experienced the broadcast of X-Files in French on M6, you probably remember this little nugget what the fuck. If it is entirely due to a dubbing not very developed, this extract that evokes the web in a totally improbable way is far from being the only one.

From the science fiction film of the 90s to the police series like the Experts or NCIS, difficult not to fall on an embarrassing scene that tries to show the spectator what the Internet or a computer intrusion. Worse yet, these shots have a hard life and are found in newer movies like Skyfall.

At a time when more than 3 billion people are connected in the world and where series such as Mr. Robot are able to accurately evoke web culture and hacking, the fact that these scenes continue to exist proves that the representation of Digital world on our screens is a complex affair.

Once upon a time, cyberpunk

To understand how we inherited all these clichés, we must go back to the early 80s, at a time when computer science was just beginning to take off and where the Internet is unknown to the general public. “During this decade, until the early 1990s, most American users were members of government, military, large corporations and some high-level enthusiasts with strong knowledge of machines,” says Aaron Tucker, author Of the Interfacing test with the internet in Popular Cinema. “This is the very beginning of the internet culture that we know today and it is visually not exciting enough. ”

Most computers do not have graphical interfaces and everything must be done by typing lines of code. On the Internet, the web and its browsers do not yet exist and the users are mainly on board board newsletters, the ancestor of our discussion forums. In the cinema, computers, like video games, are beginning to be used as narrative elements. But it is two films in particular that will define the codes and aesthetic cinematography related to computers, the Internet and hackers for the next 20 years.

The first one is Tron, directed by Steven Lisberger, and which, in 1982, became a real science fiction UFO. Without evoking the Internet directly, the work develops a totally new visual language that is supposed to represent the inside of a computer system with luminous printed circuits resembling highways and programs forced to fight in mortal video games. Without knowing it Tron invents, before the hour, the imagery of cyberspace, a futuristic concept of the internet that William Gibson will define in his masterpiece cyberpunk Neuromancer as “a graphical representation of data extracted from the memories of all computers Of the human system “.

The second film is John Badham’s Wargames, which was released in 1983 and follows the adventures of David Lightman, a high-school geek who manages to enter the WOPR, an Internet-based computer system, nuclear war. Unlike the first film, Wargames does not pay at all into the metaphorical representation of the computer system, but depicts, rather realistically, the activities of a hacker.

You can see the hero type in classic command lines or look for a password by doing social engineering, that is, acquiring information by unfair means such as phone hoaxes or spoofing ‘identity. Thanks to Wargames, the cinematographic figure of the (Net) Geek, as Lauren Rosewarne is called, is born: “a young student or student, often gifted and rebellious or pariah, who spends his free time hacking a computer in His room “.

Information highways

These two films give the computer a visual identity and endearing protagonists. These two elements will then develop throughout the 80s with the emergence of the current cyberpunk. New themes emerge as artificial intelligence, the fusion of man and machine, rebellion against an increasingly computerized society and the fascination of screens that are treated in films like Robocop, Terminator, Videodrome Or Brainstorm. For all that the most talkative technology for the audience of the time remains the television and the VHS and Tron as well as Wargames will remain very ahead of their time. It was not until the early 1990s and the explosion of the domestic microcomputer to see the first films evoking the Internet.

Difficult to talk about the Internet realistically as the concept is new and still concerns only a very small part of the public. Indeed, thanks to the release of the first browsers like Mosaic in 1993, the world wide web became easily accessible and the number of Internet users increased from tens of thousands to nearly 40 million in 1995. In the eyes of the general public, Internet is therefore a futuristic tool but rather fuzzy to grasp because requiring a costly connection and some technical knowledge to be able to be used as demonstrate these commercial videos a bit obsolete.

For the lambda user, however, the most relevant technology of the time remains (and yes, already) virtual reality. Indeed, in 1989, the video game industry released its first products dedicated to the RV like the famous Power Glove and the Virtual boy of Nintendo or even the immersive helmets of Atari and SEGA. It does not matter whether these gadgets work badly or give nausea: we find the concept everywhere in science fiction movies and technothrillers as part of the futuristic but accessible computer paraphernalia.

With these new accessories, the director will anchor the concept of the Internet as a cyber-space. “Films such as Disclosure, Hackers, Guinea Pigs and Johnny Mnemonic will represent the Internet as an almost physical place in which people can enter and interact visually and even tactically,” says Aaron Tucker. Most directors have made this choice to make the Internet concept sexier and more interesting on the screen. “It is the great era of the actors who move their arms in front of them to manipulate virtual data as in a video game gesture, as if motion gaming was the alpha and omega of computing.

If the visual aspect of the web is rather exotic, its use is still at this period the exclusivity of the people who know it, namely the famous geeks and the hackers. Within this parallel space of which they have the keys, they escape the bullying of their classmates or at the pressure of the society and obtain a true credibility through their avatars.

The unknown in the machine

However, this visual representation of cyberspace declined rapidly from the mid-1990s onwards, as the connected computers invaded the homes. Between 1995 and 2000 the number of Internet users increased from 40 million to more than 300 million people, making the web a problem that concerns more and more people. The first consequence is a democratization of uses in everyday life in cinema. Hackers are no longer the only ones to use the network, and more conventional characters like Kathleen Kelly and Joe Fox, the two booksellers of You’ve got mail are presented as gentlemen and madam everyone. At the time when Tinder and Adopt a guy do not yet exist, this romance story on the web shows the public that even “normal people” can use the tool.

To stick to this more realistic view of computer science, the filmmakers of the time fall into the cinematographic cliché of the actor-who-looks-at-things-on-his-screen-and-who-tapers -a keyboard. If people are no longer immersed in a virtual world, their screen displays graphic interfaces rather flashy. “The machines that beep, the lines of code that scroll, or the 3D visual effects that float at each mail received participate in the dramaturgy of a scene, explains François Theuriel, also known under the name of the Gravedigger of films. Showing what happens in a computer is a real technical challenge, it has to make the scene interesting, and dramatic. This is why directors tend to force the stroke.”

Another major change, and not least, the web also becomes a vector of anguish and moral panic, both in the media and in the cinema. So in the 1993 Ghost in the Machine, a serial killer ghost reincarnates on the Internet and persecutes an American family by blowing up the appliance (which at the time was not really connected to the web …). In Internet Stash released in 1995, Sandra Bullock gets her identity and life stolen by a hacker because she spends too much time online and not enough in “real life.”

For Aaron Tucker, this first wave of anxiety is strongly linked to the fear of loss of control over technology. “The use of the web exploded suddenly without the latter being fully understood. The Internet is therefore something useful and mysterious at once, and its technological ubiquity that resembles a virus tends to give a sense of vulnerability. There is also the idea that the Internet could bring the whole world into your home, including a host of anonymous and unknown perverts. ”

This archetype that Lauren Rosewarne calls the cyberbogeyman is found, for example, in Moloch, one of the first episodes of the series Buffy in which a demon trapped on the net drags the nice Willow while passing for an innocent teenager. In Strangeland it’s a perverse fetishist who tracks his victims online and posts videos of his murders. Same principle in Terreur.com released in 2002 in which a killer adds to the net film on live on the net of the victims connected to a device that aspires their blood.

The 2000s, the end of clichés?

In the course of the years 2000 the web enters a new era with more and more users: we exceed the billion by 2005 and the two billion, four years later. As for the cinema, the use of the web normalizes and the characters no longer need to be geeks to do research, receive emails or send messages on their smartphones. “Of course, there are always movies centered on hacking and networking like Untraceable, Firewall or even Michael Mann’s recent Hacker, who use our fear of technology to advance the plot,” says Aunt Tucker. But these films finally got pretty badly aged because they use the same twines from the 90s that were effective at the time.”

“The concern with movies that evoke the Internet is that they represent a tool that evolves so quickly, both in its visual aspect and in the use that can be made of it, that they end By aging very quickly. Just see Matrix today. The themes are still current but the technology shown in the film, like mobile phones, has taken a shot of old. ”

Worse yet, now that hacking has become a rather common cliché, some directors are ramping up to keep the audience interested. This gives scenes rather crazy as in Operation Swordfish in which Hugh Jackman must enter a secure server while undergoing a blowjob or an absurd counterhacking scene in NCIS in which the characters type four-handed command lines on a keyboard.

Often criticized and mocked on the internet, this kind of scenes will become more rare from the years 2010. Some directors and producers like Paul Greengrass, David Fincher or Sam Esmail will return to a more realistic approach to hacking and display real tools On screens as SQL queries in Millenium.

It is in these years that we begin to see also the famous scanner Nmap that we see in Jason Bourne but also in Mr. Robot. “This is a tool for scanning open ports on one or more IPs,” explains Khaos Farbauti Ibn Oblivion, an IT security specialist. “It is therefore a tool that allows to locate and analyze the different services available on a machine. And from there one can define the different possible paths of attack. So yes it’s quite credible to use it in a film, upstream of an attack “.

And on the Internet the counter-offensive is also launched. Sites like MovieCode offer close-ups on lines of code, false or not, displayed in movies.

In addition to this rise in realism, web culture is also starting to emerge from the end of the 2000s. This is particularly the case with IT Crowd, a British series which for the first time decides to Laughing with the geeks and not at their expense taking the point of view of two members of the IT department of a big box.

In the main scene, there is a mask by Guy Fawkes, the Anonymous figure, and a poster by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, although the main characters Roy and Moss do not escape the clichés of netgeek with Questionable hygiene and serious social problems, they are also the only ones to really understand how the web works. Normal people and by extension the general public, which has a basic use of the web, are then pointed at as ignorant believers in a kind of technological magic, as is the case in this sequence, already cult.

Even in the horrific registry, the movies espouse more precisely the web culture, thus renewing the good old figure of the cyberbogeyman. So the Smiley movie released in 2012 exploits the propensity of Internet users to propagate creepypasta, that is to say urban legends created on the net like the famous Slender Man.

The character with smiley head is entirely from the web and comes to kill its victims after the last ones pronounced the phrase “I did it for the lulz” three times on Chatroulette. In the film Trust, the figure of the sexual pervers who abuse the confidence of teenage girls returns to the assault but this time is accompanied by reflection on viral videos.

Internet, the ultimate invasion

Visually, if the delusional metaphors of the 90s are behind us, some filmmakers however take the risk of using allegories to represent what the Internet is. In Hideo Nakata’s Chatroom, members of a chat group are shown both in front of their screen and in a room that is supposed to represent the virtual space in which they move freely.

In The 8th Wonderland by Nicolas Alberny and Jean Mach, the creation of a new country online is represented by videos of Internet users floating in all directions to simulate the flow of data. Finally, Hacker films by Michael Mann and Snowden by Oliver Stone use the same process to represent the Internet, namely an animated version of a datavisualization called social graph.

Used by data specialists, these graphics make it possible to visualize networks of websites or profiles. In the cinema these connections become luminous and moving and extend on the planet, showing the extent of the network. A realistic vision of what the Internet is really, but symbolically, may well lose the viewer. This is the opinion of Khaos Farbauti: “I think the problem is that Hollywood wants to” show the internet “rather than just use it. It’s like you’re making a movie about the phone. In itself, it has no interest, it’s what you do with that counts. ”

To avoid this pitfall, others prefer to focus on the actions of Internet users and their continuous interactions in particular thanks to the massive adoption of smartphones. Thus, if a fictional character of the years 2000 used the Internet in a punctual way to do a search for example, the latter is constantly online in the years 2010.

To realize this evolution, the biggest visual innovation consists of mounting the SMS messages directly on the screen. This technique, which has been popularized with the Sherlock and House of Cards series, adds a new layer of visual information and narration in an elegant way while showing that the Internet has merged into the real world. For François Theurel, the appearance of this technique marks a new era: “For a decade or so, web culture has developed a visual language that is unique to it and which blends image and text without problem. We usually see pop up windows or notifications on our screens. These visual habits are hybridizing with classical cinematic language. ”

In science fiction works such as the White Christmas episode of the British series Black Mirror, in which contact lenses can visually block a person like Facebook, or Keiichi Matsuda’s short film Hyper Reality, emerging reality technologies Augmented are put to the service of the narrative to mount allegorically and worrying how a continuous connection to the web can become alienante.

Some directors even refuse any visual allegory in order to unroll their story directly on the screen of the computer. The most typical example is Noah, a short film by Walter Woodman and Patrick Cederberg, winner of the Toronto International Festival, which tells the story of a break using only Google Chrome, Facebook, Skype or Chatroulette. There is even a Facebook piracy sequence all that is most banal and realistic.

The same principle is used for the horror feature Unfriended which runs entirely online via Skype and YouTube. The presence of this new visual style shows how audiences seem ripe for this type of experience. This is at least the opinion of Maxime Chamoux and Sylvain Gouverneur, the creators of the series Ploup whose first season is still available on the site Artecreative.

“Our bias is to tell stories and explore the psychology of characters, only through their exchanges on a messaging service,” they say. When we imagined this format in 2013, it was mainly because of budgetary constraints. But when the idea of ​​the cat arrived, we wanted to go to the end of logic and never show the heads of our characters. To identify them, viewers can hang on to the nicknames but also to their way of writing, their spelling errors and the ease they have of using certain codes of online conversation such as hashtags.
Finally, the series works perfectly and shows how much it is no longer really necessary to show “what is internet through 3D visual effects and hackers specialists in computing.

In 2016, the Internet is definitely part of our lives and the cinema finally begins to understand it.