1. War Games (1983)
The beginning of the personal-computer age brought new convenience and new capabilities, but also a share of new paranoias: fears that technology was moving too fast, that the average user wouldn't be able to keep up with the rapidly changing personal and corporate culture, that untested and possibly flawed machines were rapidly gaining control over people's lives. Filmmakers tapped into those insecurities with movies like War Games, in which a Pentagon computer looks like it may start a real-world nuclear World War III without realizing it isn't just playing a simulation game. But a basic truth quickly emerged: No matter how resonant or culturally up-to-the-minute a given film was, images of people staring at computer monitors were tremendously boring. War Games pioneered a whole visual language of people talking to and through computers, and that language still gets used today, whenever computer users in films read their screens out loud for the audience's benefit, saying what they're typing as the camera aggressively cuts to extreme close-ups of key words onscreen. More recent films usually have a live person on both ends of a chat-line, both of them reciting whatever they type; War Games instead had a tinned, eerily inhuman computerized voice simulator speaking for the world-threatening mainframe. That was pretty creepy, all the way back in 1983. Attempts to make computer communication exciting and cinematic have gone downhill ever since.
2. Jumpin' Jack Flash (1986)
"Computers are not friendly!" Whoopi Goldberg's boss barks at her when she starts actually communicating with her online customers at an international bank. But oh, ho ho, is he comedically and ironically wrong! Before long, her primitive CRT monitor is displaying a Russian exercise program, then picking up messages from a British intelligence agent trying to escape Eastern Europe with key information. Most of the movie's key scenes involve Goldberg typing out messages to him in increasingly wacky casual poses—perched on a desk imitating Ray Charles, lying sideways across several desks, presumably just for visual variety—and talking loudly to herself, reading her messages and his, at least until her terminal starts speaking in his voice. Given Penny Marshall's extremely basic direction, all the tension relies on the prospect of her contact getting caught, and on Goldberg's up-cuttery, as she does silly voices, makes silly faces, spins around in her chair, sings to herself, and otherwise tries to be wacky yet endearing. Then again, the rest of the movie leans heavily on that shtick too, so there's no reason the computer scenes should be any different.
3. The Net (1995)
Films about computer use run the risk of being visually dull and predictable, but The Net typifies another problem of the genre: obsolescence. Already dated when it was made, this cyber-thriller looks downright hysterical today, as shut-in Sandra Bullock orders pizza and plane tickets through her many computers, using interfaces that were meant to look cutting-edge 12 years ago, and now look as dated as Atari 2600 games. In a typical hilariously awful bit, she and a few other people with garish 16-bit icons chat online about how "No one leaves the house anymore. No one has sex. The Net is ultimate condom." Bullock talks… extra… slow… as… she… laboriously… types… and… recites… a… des… cription… of… her… perfect… man… Later, after a disc sent to her by a colleague gets her in trouble with a shadowy organization that erases her identity, reports her car stolen, and puts her home up for sale, she hits the chat board again to demand information about said shadowy organization. Fortunately, "CyberBob" has all the instant exposition anyone could want, and Bullock is ready and waiting to read it all aloud in a suitably alarmed tone.
4. Copycat (1995)
After nearly getting herself stupidly serial-killed, serial-killer expert Sigourney Weaver is traumatized, agoraphobic, and housebound, which in this day and age means a lot of communicating with the outside world via computers. Not that Weaver has picked up the slightest amount of instant-messaging etiquette in her 13 months at home; trying to keep the story moving along, she sits down at her computer, interrupts a chat session, demands someone talk to her, types some exposition, then gets up and wanders away without saying goodbye. The filmmakers are confused about computers too: When Weaver gets a scary e-mail, a cop says the killer "hacked into her e-mail address." But mostly, Copycat manages to make online communication interesting by making it pictorial and visual, with Weaver and her latest serial-killer stalker sending each other spoooky images instead of laboriously typed text.
5. You've Got Mail (1998)
Essentially a two-hour commercial for AOL (much like Cast Away, also starring Tom Hanks, would be for FedEx two years later), You've Got Mail remade the 1940 Jimmy Stewart film The Shop Around The Corner for the digital age, but instead of paper mail, Hanks and Meg Ryan communicate anonymously via e-mail and "chatting." Instead of the now-traditional close-ups of text on screen, director/screenwriter Nora Ephron mostly sticks to wider shots of the duo typing from their respective kick-ass apartments. Voiceovers clue the audience in to what they're typing, from their mutual love of their hometown, New York, to—get this—why men love The Godfather! For all the rampant product placement, You've Got Mail's online sequences stay mostly conversational and unstilted. Looking at the other films on this list, they could have been way worse.
6. Fear Dot Com(2002)
In this so-so rip-off of The Ring, a scary website kills everyone who visits it, 48 hours after their first exposure. When users first log on, the site initiates a primitive chat session, calling them by name and asking questions like "Do you want to hurt me?" A woman's seductive voice echoes everything the website says in print, but the filmmakers mostly avoid having the users respond out loud by limiting their sides of the conversation to brief questions, short and simple enough to be read off the screen. Meanwhile, montages of disturbingly violent, grotesque, and sexual images flicker by at near-subliminal speeds, edgy soundtrack music plays, screams and metallic buzzes echo in the background, the point of view blurs, distorts, and reverses, and in general, the film pulls every J-horror trick under the sun in order to make viewers forget they're looking at people looking at a website.
7. Rick (2003)
In adapting Rigoletto for the modern era, director Curtiss Clayton and writer Daniel Handler are kinder than most filmmakers about assuming the audience can read, or that they can get the general idea about the mundane sex chat between "BIGBOSS" (Aaron Stanford) and "VIXXXEN" (Agnes Bruckner) just from context, and don't actually need every steamless line read to them. As the two users—the young boss and precocious daughter of smarmy businessman Bill Pullman—talk via a service called "NaughtyChat," the camera stays in close on Stanford as he rubs his hands through his hair, bounces, gasps, pops candy into his mouth, chants "Boom!" when he hits "send," and eventually masturbates while frantically typing one-handed. Meanwhile, on the other end of the chat session, Clayton keeps his camera swirling rhythmically back and forth in semi-circles around Bruckner and a female friend, who giggle over their end of the chat, talk about other things, and chatter with Pullman on the phone. Clayton achieves his excitement mostly by contrasting Bruckner's excitement with Stanford's comically blasé amusement, then throwing Pullman's obliviousness to the situation into the mix, all while cutting faster and faster as the scene reaches its—ahem—climax.
8. Closer (2004)
In the film adaptation of his stage play Closer, screenwriter Patrick Marber finds ways to bring each possible pairing of his four star-crossed leads—Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Clive Owen, and Julia Roberts—into proximity, sparking sexual and social tension from the way their needs push and pull at each other. But the weakest pair-off of the lot comes when Owen and Law, unaware of each other's identities, wind up in a "London Sex Anon" chatroom, with Law pretending to be a woman ("blonde. big mouth. epic tits.") and demanding "sit on my face fuckboy." Director Mike Nichols handles all this with dry comic restraint; both men read and type with silent fixation and casually amused expressions, as if mildly aroused but not wanting to commit to more. But Nichols cranks Mozart's operatic score up extra-loud, communicating with big explosive booms and crashes all the things the two men aren't about to loosen up enough to express even while alone and anonymous in separate rooms.
9. The Perfect Man (2005)
By 2005, the Internet had profoundly affected the way people communicated with the outside world and the way they searched for potential mates. Leave it to Hollywood to hilariously misunderstand both trends. Case in point: The Perfect Man, a surreally misconceived Hilary Duff vehicle where the plucky tween star plays matchmaker for mom Heather Locklear by wooing her online via a fictional suitor. What's a family comedy without creepily incestuous undertones? Man makes the situation slightly less unsavory by having Duff lure hunky dreamboat Chris Noth to play the role of Duff's mystery cyber-suitor IRL. As with many of the films in this Inventory, this means having Duff read her online missives out loud in her trademark robotic chirp, but the film gets bonus cluelessness points by having her address readers of her online diary as "bloggers." This is either a hilarious misreading of blog terminology, or a deceptively savvy acknowledgment that bloggers are pretty much the only people interested in reading the self-absorbed, navel-gazing natterings of other bloggers. Here's the really weird part: This bizarre, crazily implausible concoction was inspired by the real-life cyber-adventures of a lonely teen who struck up e-mail friendships with a slew of gullible celebrities. (Is there any other kind?)
10. Cry_Wolf (2005)
"Ur bff is DOA… lol," or something to that effect. Trying to do for text messaging what Black Christmas and When A Stranger Calls did for phones, Cry_Wolf sets a serial killer with an extensive buddy list loose at a snooty prep school. (Maybe because there's nothing scarier than a knife-wielding psychopath hovering over a Mac desktop, save maybe a menacing pop-up ad.) There's actually a reasonably clever origin story here: A group of pranksters, looking to exploit an unsolved murder in the area, decide to invent a serial killer and forward his profile to every student e-mail account on campus. The gag backfires when it inspires several costumed imitators and one real copycat slasher who enjoys terrorizing people via AOL Instant Messenger. Never has the sound of an AIM prompt been so chilling—or so the filmmakers must have hoped.
11. Me And You And Everyone We Know (2005)
Presumably not a lot of people are sexually aroused by the concept of "pooping back and forth"—a question for Dan Savage, perhaps?—but an online chat room would be the most likely place to find such people, specifically a chat room in a quirky Miranda July movie. Left unsupervised by their single father while he sells shoes at the mall, two brothers strike up an IM conversation with a female stranger and veer off into the sort of forbidden perversion that only the anonymity of the Internet can support. The older brother wants to ask her about her "bosoms," but the younger one suggests the more deviant (yet strangely, endearingly innocent) idea of pooping into each other's buttholes. ))<>((. Forever.
12. Perfect Stranger (2007)
Here's proof positive that nearly 25 years after War Games, unimaginative cyberthrillers are still aping it, with endless screen close-ups and sequences of protagonists talking out loud to people who can't hear them. Halle Berry seems to spend half of Perfect Stranger sitting at a computer which purrs at her in Bruce Willis' voice, as she chats with someone she thinks is him; meanwhile, she hits all the usual marks, reciting what she's typing, typing faster when the scene needs to build to a higher level, and chatting in up to three windows at once when the viewers need a real thrill. Oh, our busy, exciting modern world.