By Peter Suciu
Movies are meant to entertain, and a certain level of “suspension of disbelief” is required to make these enjoyable. Otherwise, how are we to believe James Bond can always outwit the villain; that a radioactive spider can give you superpowers; or that Richard Pryor could play a software engineer?
The latter example is no joke. In the largely forgotten Superman III, the foul-mouthed comedian did play a software engineer turned hacker, who somehow managed to turn the Man of Steel into an anti-hero. It was the early 1980s before most people really understood the concept of computer programming, but in recent years the bar has been raised in how software engineers are depicted on TV.
“Most if not all films about software engineers include errors,” said technology industry analyst Charles King of Pund-IT. “It’s worth keeping in mind that the entertainment value of movies depends on character development more than technical accuracy.”
“This is especially true of today’s big-budget films,” said Dan Chmielewski of Madison Alexander PR, who works with many clients involved in the cybersecurity world. “Hollywood’s views of security technology are massive failures. TV actually does a much better job with shows such as Mr. Robot and Silicon Valley.”
With that in mind, here is a rundown of the top 9 software engineer movies to see:
1. Wargames (1983)
This could be considered the granddaddy of “hacker” films, as it involves high school underachiever David – played by Matthew Broderick before he became Ferris Bueller – who accidentally breaks into NORAD’s mainframe computer. While we could ask why NORAD could be accessed so readily via a dial-up modem, we won’t. Instead, we’ll enjoy this one as the first mass-consumer, visual representation of dial-up, remote computer access. The film’s plot worried lawmakers enough that it contributed to the creation of the first U.S. federal Internet policy, the Counterfeit Access Device and Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1984.
Coding Error: David finds the most recent password to his school’s computer network, but manages to forget it is case-sensitive while entering it on his computer.
2. Blackhat (2015)
With Michael Mann (director of Heat) at the helm and starring Chris Hemsworth, this film has a bit more action than the average software engineer might experience in a lifetime, but it gets many of the key details involving black hat hacking right. Hemsworth plays a black hatter who finds his way out of a 15-year prison sentence by helping track down the malware he wrote before it can wreak havoc on a nuclear reactor.
Coding Error: The Yubico authentication token is used as a biometric key, and in one scene the main character is seen running an old kernel from 2006.
3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
This psychological crime thriller (based on the novel of the same name) is wrapped in a murder mystery. The lead/title character is not one we’d want to mess with online or in person. She is an antisocial investigator and hacker, who uses her computer and research skills, along with her cunning to solve a decades-old disappearance and presumed murder.
Coding Error: While searching crime records by entering SQL queries the results don’t match the query. Likewise, while the story takes place in 2006, the Macbook Pros seen onscreen weren’t introduced until 2008
4. Sneakers (1992)
Robert Redford as a security specialist isn’t the most far-fetched part of this film, but the idea of “sneakers” seeking to obtain a “box” that could allow the NSA to spy on other agencies makes for a great caper film. For bonus points the film’s press kit was actually accompanied by a floppy disc that included a custom program to explain the movie – parts of which were quasi-encrypted.
Coding Error: The opening scene may be set in 1969 but the display terminal shows IBM VGA 40-column text, which was so 1987.
5. The Social Network (2010)
If you ever wondered how Mark Zuckerberg came up with the idea for Facebook, just watch this movie. It shows Zuckerberg as a student at Harvard, who created the social network and made friends and plenty of enemies along the way. The film highlights the hard work that goes into writing software code, but it also highlights how the right idea can be worth billions!
Coding Error: “When watching The Social Network, is it more important that the Mark Zuckerberg character uses an incorrect email domain (@harvard.edu, rather than @fas.harvard.edu) or that actor Jesse Eisenberg provides an insightful portrayal of a person whose actions continue to impact the lives of billions of people?” asked Pund-IT’s King. “I prefer the latter.”
6. The Imitation Game (2014)
Set in World War II even before mainframes were a thing, the film shows the work that goes into developing the world’s earlier computers.
“Though not about software engineering, let’s give a shout-out to The Imitation Game,” said Jim Purtilo, associate professor of computer science at the University of Maryland. “Without the spectacular science of Alan Turing (depicted in the movie), there would be no software engineering as we know it today. All software engineers working with government projects will recognize the pitfalls of cost analysis, requirements capture, and design tradeoffs.
Coding Errors: The film downplays the fact that Polish cryptographers and cryptanalysts had broken the German Enigma messages since 1932 – but that would ruin the point of the movie!
7. The Fifth Estate (2013)
Benedict Cumberbatch makes this list twice – once as Alan Turning in the aforementioned The Imitation Game, and again as Wikileaks founder and editor-in-chief Julian Assange. This film highlighted the development of the website devoted to releasing information that was being withheld from the public while retaining anonymity for its sources.
Coding Errors: Julian has a Macbook that turns on with a Windows sound, while a chat program somehow recognizes the user despite it being on another person’s laptop. Now that’s some smart code!
8. Pirates of Silicon Valley (1993)
There have been several recent films made about Apple founder Steve Jobs, but none are as good as this made-for-TV (TNT) movie, which also highlights the rivalry between Jobs and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Based on the 1984 book Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer, it reminds us that “good artists copy; great artists steal!” Jobs reportedly didn’t like the film or screenplay but was impressed by the performance of Noah Wyle, who played him.
Coding Errors: Some computers – notably the IBM PC XT and AT – weren’t available at the time depicted.
9. Enemy of the State (1999)
This one was made two years before the events of 9/11 and the passage of the Patriot Act, and long before Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program. Will Smith also shows that he’s better as an everyman than an action hero.
Coding Error: Even now, it is impossible to obtain a 3D image of a shopping bag from a single camera feed, and some of the details on global positioning satellites are wrong. However, “this is a good example of the use or capability of technology,” said Purtilo. “The biggest error was in how fast data from each of the many surveillance points could be integrated, at least at the time.” Today, this could be spot on!