Computers are all over movies these days, from the ones behind the scenes that create gosh-wow special effects to the ones on screen that are the constant targets of ridiculously good-looking hackers. What's rare is finding movies where computers and programs--androids and robots don't count--are actually part of the cast. A computer hasn't won an Oscar yet, but with these five films you can at least imagine them asking, "What's my motivation?"
1. Ghost in the Shell (1995)
The Ghost in the Shell title actually applies to three anime movies (and two TV series, as well as the manga and games they were all based on). They're all set on a near-future Earth where computer networks have infiltrated every aspect of life, and just about everyone has had some kind of cybernetic enhancement. That can mean a bionic arm, replacement eyes, communication jacks in the back of the neck, or a even a fully prosthetic body and cybernetic brain. (The title refers to the concept of a person's "ghost"--their soul, if you like--and their physical body.)
Ghost in the Shell follows the adventures of Section 9, a covert-operations unit that specializes in tech crimes, allowing the series to explore the many different social and political aspects of a fully technological society, as well as what it means to be human.
However, it's the 1995 movie (titled simply Ghost in the Shell) that has Section 9 trying to get a handle on a mysterious hacker called the Puppet Master--a hacker who turns out to be a computer program that has become self-aware and now wants to be recognized as a living being. The Puppet Master isn't exactly evil; it just wants to survive and evolve. Still, it's hard not to be creeped out by how the Puppet Master leaves a trail of human wreckage as it hacks people's memories in order to get its job done in the physical world.
Part police thriller, part romance, part philosophy debate, Ghost in the Shell has everything. And when you visit a world where people's brains can be hacked, it makes our malware troubles look pretty tame.
2. Tron (1982)
When Flynn has his video game ideas stolen from him and sees a successful multinational built from the profits, he relentlessly tries to find the evidence that will put things right. He sneaks into the company at night to access the mainframe, and ends up being zapped by an experimental digitizing laser that brings him into a surreal world on the other side of the computer screen.
In this world, computer programs are living beings, many of whom live under the oppression of the Master Control Program (MCP). Tired of his repeated hacking attempts, the MCP sentences Flynn to the Game Grid, hoping he'll be killed by the very games he created.
Because most of the movie takes place in the digital world, almost the entire cast consists of software on legs. Although security program Tron is the title character, props must be given to actor David Warner, who exudes enough evil to play all three of the movie's bad guys, including the MCP and his top enforcer, Sark. Another nod must go to the character Ram, an actuarial program turned hardened warrior who still gets chirpy when he talks about annuities.
If anything, Tron teaches you to have a little respect for your hard-working software. As Flynn says after a harrowing escape, "On the other side of the screen, it all looks so easy."