Cinema’s most memorable computer programmes with the potential to destroy the world
Time Out Abu Dhabi staff
The upcoming Transcendence stars Johnny Depp as a scientist-turned-sinister cyborg. We decode some of cinema’s most memorable computer programmes with the potential to destroy the world.
HAL (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968) ‘I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.’ One of the most famous lines in cinematic history doesn’t even come from one of us; instead, it belongs to HAL, the on-board supercomputer of a Jupiter-bound spaceship, while in a state of complete and utter control over its human masters. HAL and its flesh-and-blood crew members, Frank Poole and David Bowman, are on an important mission: a mysterious monolith has emitted a powerful signal into outer space, and the discovery of its recipients may affect the future of the human race. However, HAL appears to malfunction during the voyage, and it subsequently aims to cover this up by getting rid of everyone on board. Having already disposed of Poole, Bowman is attempting to bring his colleague’s body back into the ship when HAL utters those chilling words. It’s a defining moment in Stanley Kubrick’s terrifying 1968 sci-fi masterpiece, which hammers home the central theme: that humans have engineered their own downfall.
Skynet (Terminator films) When director James Cameron brought us the first two Terminator films – the original in 1984, and its sequel, Judgement Day, in 1991 – he also brought us a terrifying vision of the future. Skynet was an artificial intelligence system developed by Cyberdene, with the goal of being used by the US military to look after its nuclear arsenal and keep tabs on the rest of the world. On August 29, in a future 1997, it finally gains self-awareness. Skynet perceives the panic from its human operators as an attack, and what follows is epic warfare complete with time-travel and multiple cyborgs designed in the likeness of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Through the four Terminator pictures (there’s also a fifth in development, Terminator: Salvation), Skynet has been the main antagonist without ever showing its true face, making it at once an intriguing and dangerous foe.
The bomb (Dark Star, 1974) This particular computer programme is different from the others on this page, in that it doesn’t know whether it’s good or evil. John Carpenter’s low-budget cult classic about a group of isolated astronauts for whom things to start going totally wrong climaxes in a curious scene in which an unnamed explosive device seems to have developed a consciousness. Lt. Doolittle (Brian Narelle) attempts to calm it down following a false order to carry out the one thing it was designed to do: explode. The bomb experiences a severe case of existentialism, and the ensuing debate is scintillatingly funny and thoughtful: to detonate, or not to detonate, that is the question. Thankfully, the bomb is convinced not to do so, sparing the crew of the Dark Star and its otherwise uneventful 20-year mission.
Master Control Program (Tron, 1982) Though the visuals are dated by today’s standards, the special-effects extravaganza of 1982’s Tron delivered images that were, at the time, unsurpassed in action and adventure movies. During the 1980s, it was clear that computer-generated imaging would be central to the future of film – so it was apt that Tron, in which Kevin Flynn (played by Jeff Bridges) becomes absorbed into a cyberspace kingdom, had a villain of similar design. The Master Control Program is an evil genius that controls other human-looking ‘programmes’ – and which plots the downfall of programme-user Flynn with a series of gladiatorial games. Voiced by David Warner with the upmost degree of arrogance and hubris (‘No one user wrote me. I’m worth millions of their man years!’), The Master Control Program has a surprisingly compelling personality for what is essentially a computer chip inside an arcade machine.
Will Caster (Transcendence, 2014) Like Skynet in the Terminator franchise, the debut movie from Wally Pfister (cinematographer on most of Christopher Nolan’s films) Transcendence features a computer programme out to leave the human race behind in favour of a higher form of existence. But this isn’t your average piece of coding. When Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a scientist on the brink of creating a sentient machine, is shot by an anti-tech group of extremists, his ailing body is plugged into his life’s work and his mind uploaded into cyberspace. Condoned by his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and condemned by his friend and fellow scientist Max Waters (Paul Bettany), this action seems to bring Will back from the dead – but is he the same Will Caster? And why does he now desire power over knowledge? It looks like we’ll have to watch Transcendence for ourselves to find out what really happened to him – and what his transformation means for the human race.