We constantly see cybersecurity (and lack of) in the news, so it got me thinking about my favourite 10 films about cybersecurity, which was also inspired by this article. This list is by no means exhaustive and is purely based on my own personal opinions as a 20 year veteran in the tech industry and almost twice as long as a computer geek.
10. The Net (1995)
Everyone has guilty pleasures and this movie snuck onto my list as one of those, so please read on before you completely write off my choice. Although this one may not have aged well, The Net helped introduce to the mainstream the darker, and criminal, side of the internet just as it was starting to become more popular. Cyber terrorism, identity theft and doxing are all themes explored here, way before most people knew what any of them were. Sandra Bullock plays heroine Angela Bennett, a software analyst who finds herself tangled up in a far reaching government conspiracy after obtaining a highly effective new computer virus. The film was somewhat ahead of its time having a female lead in a tech-based movie – in 1995 this was almost unheard of – but it does have issues. The film is full of gaping holes, the plot is silly and the computer scenes are terribly dated. Having said all that, if you view this 1995 movie through the lens of where we are in 2022, you may find some scary premonitions for the decades that followed, not least the aspects involving the government dabbling in cybercrime for their own gain.
9. Blackhat (2015)
Here we have Heat mastermind Michael Mann directing Thor as the main star in a big budget cybercrime thriller, we must be in for a hell of a ride right?! Ahh…not quite. Chris Hemsworth plays an elite hacker who is offered temporary release from his 10 year prison by the Department Of Justice to help catch a cyber baddie who is wreaking havoc across the globe by taking down nuclear power stations and financial markets. Explosions and shenanigans soon follow. It is a decent enough film with some entertaining thrills along the way, but it is not without some significant flaws. The hacking scenes lack substance – the “hacks” are shown with dull CGI as the viewer follows the journey of packets travelling down wires and across microchips. The film attempts to explain what is going on but it feels like the writer has swallowed a Networking For Dummies before regurgitating it without any real understanding. It is a shame because the overall execution is actually very good and there are some scenes involving coding and commands lines that are surprisingly legitimate and authentic. There are several little social engineering tricks that are straight out of the scammer playbook, so it isn’t all bluster. Chris Hemsworth doesn’t disappoint here as the wise-cracking anti-hero, and the “use a criminal to catch a criminal” trope is used pretty effectively.
8. Snowden (2016)
The story of Edward Snowden certainly exemplifies the intricacies and foibles of the modern world of cyber security. Snowden is the mother of all conspiracy stories, made all the more juicy because it is all real. A true geek at heart, Snowden was a US solider until an injury forced him down another career path, ending up in the cyber division of the CIA. He becomes disillusioned as he discovers more about how the government is tracking and keeping data on everyone. When he starts to leak what he knows, he becomes a folk hero but also a fugitive from his masters. Where this film really excels is when director Oliver Stone makes us face our paranoia about cyber-snooping, and we realise that none of it is paranoia at all. But the menace is in fact very, very real. Our hero pays a huge personal cost for his crusade and all is laid bare, including an emotional speech from the actual Edward Snowden at the end of the movie: “This was not about terrorism, terrorism was the excuse – this is about economic and social control and the only thing we were really protecting was the supremacy of the government.” A well-made biopic that addresses current issues in modern society.
7. Hackers (1995)
If War Games was the film that introduced hacking to the 80s kids before the internet age, then the 90s generation had Hackers to put cybercrime on the map in a world that was just discovering the Internet. It isn’t exactly an inspiring plot: hacker mastermind Zero Cool, responsible for taking down the New York Stock Exchange at age 11, is banned from computers until his 18th birthday, at which point he links up with a gang of skateboarding high school hackers, only to get caught up in a government conspiracy to defraud a mining company. Similar to The Net, this film came out in the mid 90s when the Internet had yet to become the phenomenon it is today. The Internet was only just stepping into the mainstream and the rather cliché, bombastic hacking scenes reflect that. Goofy, cheesy and full of dated stereotypes but the cultural significance of Hackers shouldn’t be understated – it brought cybersecurity to the world’s attention at a time when nobody else was.
6. Lawnmower Man (1992)
Ok so this is another nostalgic guilty pleasure of mine, and the cybersecurity element for this entry is…shall we say…. tenuous. There isn’t really any to speak of until the final act. I realise this one might be an unpopular choice but stay with me here – anybody who was a teenager in the 90s will struggle to forget this science fiction horror movie about virtual reality and artificial intelligence. A slightly unhinged scientist played by Pierce Brosnan turns gardener Jobe, who has a learning disability, into his own lab rat by subjecting him to a regimen of experimental drugs and computer-simulated training exercises to improve his intelligence. Things quickly spiral out of control when Jobe develops telekinetic powers and realises everybody around him is taking advantage of him. Of all the films on this list, this one has definitely aged the worst, with the virtual reality style SFX looking incredibly dated by the end of the decade, never mind 30 years later. However Lawnmower Man has a certain charm and although it is probably not recommended for new viewers, if you remember this movie from back in the day and haven’t seen it for a while, give it another viewing!
5. Swordfish (2001)
Who says cybersecurity can’t be fun? Certainly not the makers of this flawed but entertaining 2001 testosterone-fueled action flick. The film blends a crime heist with the world of cyberspace. The plot involves Hugh Jackman as an ex-con and elite hacker who is coerced into taking part in a scheme to steal $6 billion of government funds by super baddie John Travolta. There are plenty of twists and turns along the way, none of which really matter. All that matters is there is enough action going on to distract you from the fact that nothing here really makes much sense. Big on explosions, small on logic, but SO much fun. And Vinnie Jones is in it. What more do you need?
4. Sneakers (1992)
Some of the movies on this list have a relatively loose connection with cybersecurity but Sneakers is probably the most pure when it comes to the machinations of the world of cybersecurity. Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, Ben Kingsley, River Phoenix, and Sidney Poitier are a group of guns-for-hire cybersecurity specialists who test the effectiveness of various companies’ security systems. They are approached by the NSA to steal a newly invented hacking device that can crack any encryption code in existence, posing a huge threat if it fell into the wrong hands. Skulduggery ensues when it becomes clear that the NSA men are double agents gone rogue. While the actual “hacking” is dubious, a lot of the techniques used are actually more social engineering than straight up hacking. So while the technology is dated (this was released in 1992) from a 2022 perspective, the techniques used are even more relevant today, and the story is engaging enough to keep you gripped. A smart, fast paced and entertaining techno-thriller that still holds up despite some dated tech.
3. Ghost In The Shell (1995)
Films with a cybersecurity-based plot can lead to exploring much grander philosophical themes. I am of course referring to the original anime movie from 1995 and not the awful 2017 live action remake. Ghost In The Shell, along with Akira, was part of a rare breed of cyberpunk Anime classics that broke through to the mainstream. A cyborg federal agent, Motoko, is hot on the trail of a criminal hacker who has been hacking into the computerised minds of several human cyborg hybrids. However her journey takes an unexpected turn as the pursuit of a man who can modify the identity of strangers has Motoko questioning her own humanity and existence in reality. The ending is somewhat controversial and certainly divisive but nothing can take away from the gorgeous visuals and animation. Ghost In The Shell was one of the first major animated movies to use digital production techniques. Every animation cell was hand drawn and then scanned into a computer and integrated with digital effects, resulting in a beautiful blend of traditional art with new techniques that would soon become the norm. A mind-expanding trip of sheer beauty that is still considered as of the best anime films ever made.
2. The Matrix (1999)
What can you say about the masterpiece that is The Matrix that hasn’t already been said? It was a tough call for the number one spot in this list and this gem from the very end of the last millennium almost made it, but that doesn’t take away from how mind-blowing and era-defining it was back then and still is today. Neo, a full-time software programmer and part-time prolific hacker, spends his days feeling like there is something missing, something more to life. He learns of the existence of the Matrix, and discovers that we have been living in a simulated reality for hundreds of years and that he is the chosen one to defeat our computer overlords once and for all. Forget the awful sequels, forget the even worse “reboot” from 2021, and remember this movie how it was originally – a standalone, stone-cold, seminal science fiction classic that explores the very concept of reality and considers the limits of humanity and technology like no other movie before or since. The Matrix is a masterfully crafted combination of spectacular action, ground breaking special effects, and razor sharp storytelling. A true classic.
1. WarGames (1983)
WarGames was certainly my first exposure to computer hacking, in film or any other medium, and it is still my absolute favourite. High school underachiever David infiltrates a military supercomputer by mistake while looking for new games to play, activates the US nuclear defence system after engaging in an innocent game of “Global Thermonuclear War” and ends up having to save the planet by preventing World War 3. Brilliant! Whether we are watching our anti-hero change his low grades by hacking into the school computer or observing him having a conversation with a dreadfully dated talking computer, it easy to see why it had such a lasting impression. Today the film still holds up, as even the technology used is wonderfully nostalgic and the storytelling uncompromising for what is essentially a family movie. An exciting and entertaining ride with probably the most realistic “hacking” scenes on this entire list. A brilliant 80s movie that has stood the test of time.
So if you are ever stuck for something to watch on a rainy Sunday afternoon you could do worse than revisit some of these classic films.