Every time we sit down to watch a movie, we enter into an unspoken agreement with its director. We willfully suspend our disbelief for the duration of the film. Unless you’re the type of moviegoer who’s always thinking, “That would never happen in real life.” And if that’s the case, well, we have to question why we’re at the movies in the first place.
Still, every so often we encounter a dramatic implausibility that jolts us out of a movie like “the kick” in “Inception.” Whether by virtue of our knowledge of a subject or lazy writing, sloppy dramatic leaps interrupt our perception of the narrative like a dark secret revealed in the third act.
Commonly, these verisimilitude-breaking moments cause viewers to say something like, “I enjoyed the movie, but one part bothered me.” That can happen with any film, even those we consider to be our favorites.
Notably, these disruptive moments often involve technology. After all, magical gadgets are rooted in an ancient Greek concept called Deus ex machina. The term is defined as “a person or thing that appears or is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly and provides a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty.”
It’s not that every movie needs to have total fidelity to real-world technology (although, if that’s your jam, here’s a list of those types of films). But sometimes, the fantastic nature of a gizmo or a character’s computer skills can shatter your suspension of disbelief, regardless of the overall quality of the movie. With that in mind, here’s a look at three classic films that are a little too generous in their depiction of tech.
“The Dark Knight”
Many film critics consider the middle chapter of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy the best superhero movie ever made. Heath Ledger’s unforgettable turn as the Joker is still the only Oscar-winning performance in a comic book movie. Plus, the film’s brilliantly constructed story allows Nolan to explore rich themes about the complexities of heroism and villainy.
Still, there’s something that’s been bothering people in the 10-plus years since the movie’s release. The cell phone SONAR used by Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) to help Batman (Christian Bale) track down the Joker.
The idea is genius on a symbolic level. It echoes the privacy-versus-safety questions raised by President George W. Bush’s warrantless-wiretapping surveillance while nodding to a bat’s natural ability to “see” through echolocation. Bat-SONAR is also a preposterous idea, even in a film where a bomb implanted in someone’s stomach is remotely detonated.
As this article points out, for Batman’s system to work, he would have to hack the phone of every Gotham citizen. Even then, the program wouldn’t work because the Joker’s voice would be too distorted by regular city noise.
That’s just the triangulation part. To generate 3D images of Gotham in real time, Batman would need an unimaginably powerful supercomputer. Interestingly, Swiss researchers have been able to use cell phone microphones to map the dimensions of a room. However, that tech is still unreliable when used in larger buildings, much less across an entire city.
The cell phone SONAR from “The Dark Knight” is useful as both a crime-fighting tool and a metaphor for the murky ethics of extralegal justice. But for a film series that otherwise emphasized realism (relative to other superhero movies, at least), it was a touch too fantastical.
“Terminator 2: Judgment Day”
If a good sequel advances the original’s story while crafting its own unique and compelling narrative, James Cameron’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” might be the greatest ever made.
“Terminator” 2 inverts a lot of the story from the 1984 original movie. It transforms Arnold Schwarzenegger’s relentlessly brutal T-800 into a guardian/father figure for the young John Connor (Eddie Furlong). The movie also recasts his naïve waitress mother Sarah (Linda Hamilton) as an institutionalized paramilitary extremist.
The Terminator series is filled with Grandfather paradoxes. The franchise’s biggest contradictions include the paternity of John’s father in the original or Cyberdyne developing Skynet from the Terminator’s CPU in “T2.”
These get a pass because time-travel movies always involve some sort of head-spinning logic. Instead, what irks some about “T2” is the scene where a 10-year-old John Connor hacks an ATM using an Atari Portfolio.
We’re not disputing that ATMs are frequently targeted by hackers (this Cracked article explains how real-world ATM subversions work). Nor are we claiming that John Connor wouldn’t be capable of hacking at such a young age. It’s just that the Portfolio doesn’t have the capacity to crack ATM programming.
“Terminator 2” is magical in its mixture of action, science-fiction, and heart. But when it comes to hacking, “T2” is more misguided than all three of its terrible sequels.
Lastly, we have to take “Independence Day” to task. The Will Smith-led 1996 blockbuster is a fun action movie full of realistic portrayals of global destruction. Plus, Jeff Goldblum gives one of his all-time great performances in it.
It’s also a really dumb and borderline nonsensical film. In case you have forced amnesia, Goldblum’s character defeats the aliens by uploading a virus into their mother-ship’s systems. Charitably, we could assume that the filmmakers were riffing on the famous climax to H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds.” In the book, hordes of Martian invaders are felled by Earth-based pathogens.
Still, it makes no sense that a human computer scientist would be able to program a complex virus in an alien language he doesn’t know. Apparently, a deleted scene does attempt to sort this out, but, come on. As noted by the estimable MoviePlotHoles.com, it’s “one of the most famous plot holes of all times.”
“ID4” remains an entertaining watch, despite (because of?) its persistent corniness. Nevertheless, “Independence Day” is a prime example of bad ideas about tech marring an otherwise good movie.