Ever since Fritz Lang unveiled the robot Maria in his 1927 silent-screen sci-fi classic Metropolis, computers have been part of the fabric of the movies. The Internet, however, is a newer phenomenon, and filmmakers are still figuring out how to work the now-essential and pervasive communications system into their movies in a worthwhile way.
With that in mind, I've made a list of the five best and five worst movies that are about the Internet in significant part, or that feature it prominently as a plot device. I've linked all movies to their Internet Movie Database entries, and for nine of the movies, I've also included a trailer (the tenth one proved too elusive).
Since the focus here is on movies about the Internet--not just computers in general--a number of pre-Internet compu-flicks (WarGames, Tron), movies inspired by YouTube (Cloverfield), and Web-centric movies that graded out as "just OK" (Live Free and Die Hard, Untraceable) didn't make the cut.
The Five Best Net Movies
1. The Matrix (1999). Is The Matrix really about the Internet? It's epic sci-fi, to be sure, but it's also a broad allegory for where technology could take us. The role of the Internet in The Matrix is basically insidious: It has evolved into a global simulation of life solely to amuse and distract unconscious humans who are being used to power the grid.
Some worry that this dystopian vision isn't just a fantasy--that we're genuinely headed this direction. The film reportedly helped inspire Second Life impresario Philip Rosedale to create his popular virtual world. Ultimately, The Matrix isn't about the Internet. It is the Internet. Whoa.
2. Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005). Writer-director Miranda July's brilliant, deadpan comedy proved that as recently as three years ago, a creative author could come up with a fresh and original way to use the Internet as a plot device. The Net plays a crucial supporting role in the film--a subplot in which two characters who know each other only through their interaction on the Web decide to meet. The fact that neither is what the other expected is almost beside the point; the fun is in how they get to their fateful meeting.
If any movie on this list is destined for eventual release as a Criterion Collection DVD, this is the one. It gets bonus points for creating one of the most memorable emoticons in history; the clip is a bit raunchy for us to publish, but here's the YouTube link for the curious.
3. Hackers (1995). Widely panned as cheesy and goofy at its release, Hackers subsequently emerged as a cult classic in the Web community--at least among viewers too young to have seen WarGames when it was originally released. The movie presents a now-rote, improbable, stylized, and VR-heavy visualization of cyberspace, but it sort of works anyway, thanks to its over-the-top story line and stars. (What other movie can boast the one-two punch of Angelina Jolie and Fisher Stevens?)
The film even manages a few hints of realism: Before the core crew of hackers allows Jonny Lee Miller's Dade to enter their group, they challenge him to identify a series of technical manuals considered essential reading among real hackers in the early 1980s. Dade aces the test, which culminates with the Ugly Red Book That Won't Fit on a Shelf.
4. Startup.com (2001). Remember the Web boom? Not Web 2.0, but the first one, before the dot-com bubble collapsed in 2000? In Startup.com, documentarians Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim captured the glorious rise and astonishingly rapid descent of a prototypical dot-com enterprise, GovWorks.com, from inception to implosion. The movie gives viewers an meeting-room seat at the brainstorming sessions, the team-building exercises, and the venture-capital pitches at the heart of a Web business launch. The period of wild enthusiasm, projected juggernautical growth, and prehatch egg counting is promptly followed by executive in-fighting, mass layoffs, and a spectacular collapse.
In a post-Enron world where outright malice underlies so much corporate failure, this story of simple ignorance and greed leading to a business's downfall seems almost quaint. But it does a fine job of summing up the dot-com era in a fleeting 107 minutes. Also check out the similar-themed E-Dreams, which chronicles the collapse of the better-known but equally doomed Kozmo.com.
5. AntiTrust (2001). This film is a guilty nerd pleasure if ever there was one. Ryan Phillippe stars as a young coder recruited into a vast computer conglomerate called NURV, where he's assigned to develop what amounts to a satellite version of the Internet--a system that will link together all communication devices on Earth (including pagers and PDAs, both of which were still popular at the time).
Alas, NURV turns out to be evil and its "fascist monopolist" boss, played gleefully by Tim Robbins, is revealed as a serial killer who doesn't hesitate to prey on open-source developers. Now that's how a real monopo-fascist handles competition!