Great Movies About the Internet?

If you had to make a list of “Things that got huge in the 21st century and were kinda’ a big deal”, you’d pretty much have to include the internets. Maybe even the webs, too. So why, then, do there seem to be so few movies about it?

There are some great films that really grapple with some central questions about technology. Blade Runner cut to the core of what might or might not distinguish the technologized self from the organic one. 2001 wondered about technology’s role in human evolution for better and worse. But where are the great films about some of the web’s central concerns: of disembodied or virtual identity; of the restructuring of hierarchies; of the rise of non-linear thought; or, hell, I dunno, porn addiction.

I’m sure they’re out there. I just can’t think of many. Avatar is on some obvious level about embodying other identities through a technological change; but its potential seems deflated by framing it in a traditional colonialist narrative. It didn’t really present the new; it’s just used a technological plot device to reproduce a trope we could probably do without.

So SiW readers, what are the great films about the internet? Or, at the very least, the films of the last 10 or 20 years that speak to something about the web’s impact on how we think about ourselves and our relation to the world?

Here’s what I’ll throw into the ring:

  • I’d like to submit something for your consideration: Me, You and Everyone We Know is the first great movie about the internet. I think this clicked for me at a specific moment in the film. Amidst this story of people attempting to connect – with virtual selves, with ideals, with expectation – there is a clip of Christine’s moment of direct honesty in her audition tape. She cuts through and stands out through some kind of concordance between her ‘true self’ and her projection on film. Shortly after, she is shown circling random letters in a book called “Going to Pieces”. To me, it was a moment in which the fragmentation of language – its reconfigurability – was put side by side by technology’s capacity to do that to self. More to the point, the film is itself an aching portrayal of, on the one hand, alienation, but on the other, points of connection between people that seem entirely unorthodox – as if the network that connects individuals has somehow been tampered with.
  • Coraline. This isn’t about the web as much as it is games, but: a young girl is beckoned into another world by a smaller version of herself that appears in doll form. If she were to lose herself there, she would adopt the eyes of the other place. But instead, she must pursue a quest in which she collects red orbs, to then travel back to her own world transformed, grown, changed. There’s something here, I think – particularly the conduit between the two worlds.
  • The other day on Twitter, I wondered if Ratatouille weren’t also a movie with ‘web-like’ concerns i.e. what, on the surface, looks like the collapse of the distinction between expert and amateur, but is in fact about the increased likelihood that expertise can come from new, unexpected places.

There are others. Inception is, I think, about the feeling of risk of ‘other worlds’ you can venture into. Fight Club is probably the movie about occupying a provisional, virtual self in order to move to some kind of self actualisation (a ‘trend’ that was followed in novels like Londonstani, and Kunzru’s The Impressionist and Transmission and, I’m sure, many others).

But what else? Which films capture something about some of the unique changes brought about by the web or related technology?

11 thoughts on “Great Movies About the Internet?

  1. If you want something more literal, there’s Catfish, August and The Virginity Hit. (I’m not even going to say the Social Network, because, well, duh.)

    I’ve obviously loosened your definition of “great” somewhat, but you dragged Ratatouille into Andrew Keen territory, so which one of us is the asshole?

    Also, I was surprised about how little attention August received when it was released. Virtually no one talked about it even though it absolutely nailed a lot of the thinking going on during the dot-com boom and bust. And, you know, DAVID FUCKING BOWIE!!

    But that’s not actually what you asked for. If we’ re talking more modern condition metaphorical bullshit, which clearly you are, I think Up In the Air is a good example. Or Almost Famous (especially as a metaphor for SXSWi). And maybe Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

  2. See, I had originally felt that The Social Network was a great film, but a bad film about the web. It seemed to focus on a small group of people as the linear starting point of a network, in particular on the solitary genius – or unique deviousness – of one or two people, which seemed off to me. But then I saw this on Kottke – – and I might have to change my mind.

    Eternal Sunshine seems like a great one, but you might have to explain that to me. The rest, I’m afraid, I have yet to see. I’ll add them to the list!

    Oh, I did not go all Carr-Keen (Carr-Keen?) on Ratatouille! I think that is still my favourite Pixar movie. I was just suggesting that its concern with ‘where talent comes from’ at least echoed some of the more democratic aspects of the web.

  3. Eternal Sunshine… Inability to eliminate traces of yourself (or, I guess, someone else… but still). And the whole Elijah Wood thing… You trying to say you never scraped a girl’s MySpace page for information that would help you get laid?

  4. Eh… I have may have Twitter-stalked someone, but my online attempts to get laid are eeeeeven more lame than my offline ones.

    But that’s a great point about Eternal Sunshine.

  5. There have to be categories or something:
    (1) Movies that deal with the “postmodern” condition thoughtfully in a way that seems to relate to the internet: identity/subjectivity, capitalism, intertextuality, etc., etc. (P.Greenaway, W.Allen, C.Kaufmann, Tarantino, etc.)
    (2) Movies that describe some element of internet culture but don’t really get their hands dirty in terms of their own filmmaking: (Me You, Up in the Air, Social Network, Lars and the Real Girl, etc.)
    (3) Movies that actually seem to be taking structures from the internet–disturbing the normal language of film–but actually have very little interesting to say: (Coraline, Avatar, Scott Pligrim, Inception)
    (4) Movies that describe the culture AND actually take on interesting internet structures AND actually have something interesting to say about significant cultural/philosophical issues? (My god, is it only The Matrix here? How about Cronenberg?)

    • Well, let’s dispense with the 1st category, as that would be a different post (I think). The rhizome or the hyperreal or pastiche etc. aren’t particularly unique to the web, right?

      The problem with the Matrix (if we just take the first film) is that it still relies on the narrative of the hero – of the sovereign subject as the the thing that returns a de-individualised world to its proper state. So I dunno about that. The second one gets all Foucauldian, though I seem to be alone on liking that film…

      I think that’s why I like Me, You better as a film about the web – it seems to invert that relationship between subject and network that I think the Matrix gets the ‘wrong’ way round. It also seems to play with subjects being interpellated in different ways because of the web. I dunno – whaddya’ think? Did you see it recently?

  6. Being John Malkovich comes to mind – in that ‘taking on other identities’ sense of things…

    i just watched Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist’ and It’s Kind of a Funny Story, two fairly contemporary movies based on teen novels that i found really relatable and heartwarming and true – and was struck by how absent from their lives the internet seemed. if anything it seemed that the traditional teen networks of phones (now mobile) made the biggest difference. but it’s interesting that people weren’t foursquare-stalking each other in nick & norah’s world, and the hero of ‘Funny Story’ didn’t think back on his happiest moment as a collection from his facebook gallery. that’s an aside.

    there was something about MirrorMask that took on the question of a real v. a virtual life… besides, it was beautiful.

    what about Matthew Broderick’s best years? War Games featured the internet in a kind of AI-goes-bonkers kind of way… and Ferris Bueller asked for a car and got a computer – with a modem, yo! – and used it to hack into his attendance record. not ‘about’ the internet but actually bothered to incorporate it into the story.

    [on the flip side… truly bad movies about the ‘net – The Net, or AntiTrust… You’ve Got Mail (guilty pleasure)]

    i’d also throw into the ring “Dopamine” – a little indie about a programmer (creative/rational) who tries to ‘figure out’ love through an animated/robotic creature in order to create a relationship with a woman (creative/emotional). it says something about virtualizing what’s already intangible.

    • Huh, I hadn’t thought of Malkovich, but you’re right – maybe even more than Fight Club, it does the occupying another identity thing. And maybe too, it does it in that weird way of the self occupying the very public identity – the self that exists beyond in the public sphere, which is something I’ve said about Twitter a lot. Huh, that’s interesting.

      And this Dopamine film sounds very interesting. Shame it’s not on Netflix Canada. Good answers!

      But what this also makes me wonder is why we can list off films like this with relative ease, but not novels. It’s quite possible I just don’t know about them (other than the 3 or 4 I’m working on for precisely these reasons) but I wonder if we need a list of ‘great novels about the internet’ – and not just so I can crowdsource my dissertation!

  7. [Reposting — didn’t take the first time…]

    It seems like a significant problem of bringing an Internet aesthetic to film is that the things that are satisfying and interesting on the web are often not satisfying or interesting on film. You wrote already elsewhere — — that analogizing the non-linear aesthetic mixmaster of Tumblr to film ends up looking pretty much like “Transformers 2.”

    Adapting books to films is notoriously difficult to do well, and it seems like adapting online stuff to film must be even harder, because questions of authorship (who “writes” your Facebook feed?), narrative (what’s the “story” happening on a 4chan board?), definitiveness (which revision of that Wikipedia article is “the real one”?), perspective (everyone in WoW is simultaneously their own hero and many other players’ peripheral character) are even murkier. If books seem reluctant to adaptation for the screen — a single-perspective medium, experienced collectively and simultaneously — then the web seems actively resistant to it.

    That said, I’ll throw out Mike Figgis’ movie Timecode ( not so much as a successful film, but at least an interesting curio.

    Final stray thought: Rashomon?

  8. oh, okay, books! (let’s start with the obvis)
    * neuromancer (which i shamefully admit i only read in the last 2 years, but triumphantly declare i read on an iPhone, which seems so very apropos)…
    * pattern recognition (which i think is fascinating for its fascination with listservs and asynchronous internet artifacts and online video and brands and so on). when scifi buffs ask me what i do, i say – basically the same thing as cayce pollard, only i’m not as cool and i don’t have panic attacks at bad branding (anymore).
    * fool’s war – about an AI gone rogue and the fascinating creature who goes to bring him back. i so want this to be made into a movie.
    * hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy – it’s about wikipedia! or wikipedia is about it!
    * the lathe of heaven – augmented reality, via the strength of a person’s dreams – the blending of fantasy & reality
    * jennifer government – a book about a future in which we take on surnames based on our employers/corporate sponsors, where product placement, loyalty programs and branding lead to a power struggle over who controls information, money and power… i think of it being about how brands & media owners colonized the ‘net (a la how Doug Rushkoff describes things)
    * cryptonomicon is on my list of ‘to-read’ at the moment – i mean, it has code in it. so i assume … something.

    but you know – let’s leap again – to TV. i recently watched the BBC’s series Sherlock and was struck by how integral to the story of a modern Sherlock the web is – Watson and Holmes have blogs, Sherlock loves to text, they track a killer through a ‘find my iPhone’ app… but Holmes is a kind of semantic search engine – he gathers information quickly and algorithmically assesses its significance and connections. Moriarty is a virus? canny SEO master? spammer? a mirror-site? who alters the search results so all villainous paths lead back to him… or maybe he’s a blog network, giving the criminally insane the wherewithal to act out, but accruing the credit to himself. i dunno.

    i like your blog.

  9. OMG wait.

    Here’s a movie about the internet that is in no way contemporary, but is still totally awesome: Desk Set. it’s actually about google, and the fear humans have of technology replacing them… do we need knowledge, intuition, memorization, when you can always ‘look it up’? does this dependency reduce us to drones? are we less special when everyone has access to the same information? who are we when everything we know, everyone else knows, too? Plus Hepburn & Tracy and the typical gender stuff.:)

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