Televisions, computers, e-mail, cell phones. As technology has wormed its way into our everyday lives over the past 75 years or so, Hollywood has served as both harbinger and trendsetter. Just as imaginative screenwriters have always delighted in showing where technology might take us, trendy screenwriters have never hesitated to embrace the newest technologies as essential parts of everyday life.
And nothing can popularize a new gadget like having it show up in the movies. As much confidence as Steve Jobs may have had in the personal computer he helped to invent, here's betting he really knew the PC had arrived when it started showing up in movies like 1983's WarGames. Segways have been around for years, but the box-office success of Paul Blart: Mall Cop has helped boost their status in popular culture. And the impersonal nature of modern communications technology is one of the themes touched on in He's Just Not That Into You. The romantic comedy, set in Baltimore, led last weekend's box office with $27.5 million in ticket sales.
It's an interesting relationship, especially since movies themselves were a result of the first great technological revolutions. In the 1890s, Thomas Edison secured many of the first patents for film cameras and projectors. By 1920, movies had become the world's dominant art form, able to both shape and reflect public opinion in ways theretofore impossible.
On Page 6, you'll find a dozen films that have served as convenient road signs along the hi-tech highway, sometimes recognizing an emerging technology even before it became familiar, other times reflecting anxiety about the next new thing. Each movie accepted what was, for the time, cutting-edge technology as simply part of its world - and, by doing so, helped bring such advancements into the cultural mainstream.
Modern Times : (1936): Victimized by an impersonal world in which he no longer has a place, Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp becomes just another cog - literally! - in a machine. It was an early warning of the dangers of a world where people are just things on which to hang the latest technology. Wonder what Chaplin would have thought of text-messaging?
Murder By Television : (1935): Four years before the 1939 New York World's Fair, generally regarded as the coming-out party for television, and Hollywood was already building movies around the small screen. In this one, starring Bela Lugosi, June Collyer and Hattie McDaniel, the inventor of a technology that would allow for instant transmission of television pictures worldwide - what a dreamer! - is murdered just as his invention is about to hit the big time. In the real world, Baltimore wouldn't even get its first broadcast TV station for another 12 years.
The Day The Earth Stood Still : (1951): In the same year CBS' See It Now wowed audiences by showing live pictures from both U.S. coasts, Hollywood had TV news cameras front and center, as an extraterrestrial named Klaatu warned Earthlings of the perils of nuclear proliferation.
Fail-Safe : (1964): Hollywood keys in on the dangers of nuclear brinksmanship with this cautionary tale of some rogue American jet fighters, compliments of a computer malfunction, on their way to bomb Moscow. With the Cuban Missile Crisis still fresh in the American consciousness, high-tech warfare was not looking all that comforting.
2001: A Space Odyssey : (1968): Stanley Kubrick's visionary opus posits a world where not only have the computers taken over, but they've become a little paranoid as well. That HAL 9000 was no machine to be taken lightly. Among the first films to simply take it for granted that computers would one day get the better of their human creators, 2001 captured both the promise and the uncertainty surrounding the onrushing computer age.
Tron: (1982): Video games like Pac-Man, Space Invaders and Donkey Kong were still something of an arcade attraction when Jeff Bridges starred as a hacker who literally gets sucked into the world he so casually plays with on his computer screen.
Videodrome: (1983): At a time when cable TV and VCRs were hardly standard equipment in every American household - only about 5 percent had VCRs, according to census statistics - James Woods is a sleazy cable-TV programmer who happens upon a plan to control people's minds through video images. In one of the most twisted images in a movie full of them, he even gets turned into something of a VCR himself.
WarGames : (1983): Matthew Broderick is a computer whiz who figures out how to hack into the U.S. civil defense system, and, as a result, almost gets the world blown up. WarGames separated the world into two camps: people who thought computers were huge machines only to be found on college campuses, and people who thought Broderick's character was based on themselves.
Disclosure : (1994): Michael Douglas, an executive with a Seattle-based computer firm, is maneuvered into a compromising position by rival Demi Moore, who seeks to have him dismissed on charges of sexual harassment. In one of the film's key scenes, Douglas, standing on a platform, his eyes covered by a visor and his fingers connected to sensors, wanders through a virtual-reality office in search of evidence that could help his case.
Galaxy Quest : (1999): When Earth's under attack from aliens, who you gonna call? How about all those nerdy kids who quote space jargon to one another and whose fingers are uniquely attuned to blasting invading spaceships out of the sky, thanks to all that time spent playing video games? This good-hearted spoof of Star Trek and all the Trekkies who worship it found an upside to video-game obsession, which had become a growing concern.
You've Got Mail : (1998): At a time when America Online and its signature "You've got mail" voice were drawing millions of new users, this remake starred Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as rival bookstore owners who fall in love sight unseen via e-mail - not realizing they despise one another in real life.
He's Just Not That Into You : (2009): In this comedy about five Baltimore women struggling to understand men, Drew Barrymore is a lovelorn single who falls victim to the ubiquitous, but impersonal, nature of communications technology. E-mail, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube, instant messaging - they're all just more ways for a guy to dump you without telling you to your face, she complains. Yet another mixed blessing in the continuing technical revolution.