From social media biopics to action and horror films, these movies prove that sitting behind a computer can sometimes make for gripping entertainment.
I love movies about the Internet. As someone who has grown up just as much on the web as off it, I feel as if it’s my virtual home, and inherently connect to films with social networks or hacking or viral media as major plot points perhaps more than films about any other subject. When Unfriended came out, rather than seeing it as a silly horror film like most did, I saw it as one of the first movies to truly explore on an artistic level the world I ought to consider my home.
Said film is one of the 10 I’ve selected for my countdown of the best movies about the Internet. These movies thematically explore different aspects of the web, revealing both the positive and negative affects of living in such a connected world. Some documentary and some fiction, they’re all potent studies of life in the Digital Age.
10. “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz”
Required viewing for anyone interested in Internet history and hacktivism, this documentary from director Brian Knappenberger explores the life of Aaron Swartz, a programmer known for his work with RSS, Creative Commons and Reddit who, after a heated trial over data-theft – he’d broken into MIT to mass-download academic journals – committed suicide at the young age of 26. A moving film about one of the Internet’s most important activists, this doc tells a gripping, character-driven tale.
Most cautionary films about the internet come off as fake or preachy, but Henry Alex Rubin’s dark, gripping drama is genuine in its attempts to warn us of the dangers of cyberbullying, anonymous chatrooms and pornography. Its attempts at interconnecting multiple storylines don’t live up to the likes of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Babel, but shouldered by a passionate performance from Jason Bateman, Disconnect really gets you thinking about how dependence on the net has changed the way we live our lives – and not always for the better.
As mentioned before, I have a deeper love for this admittedly sometimes clichéd horror film than most, and especially enjoy the way director Leo Gabriadze was able to frame Nelson Greaves’s story entirely through computer screens, as our unlucky protagonists face supernatural torture through a Skype chat they can’t exit from. For me, Unfriended is an extremely entertaining send-up of cyberbullying, and one of the best low-budget horror films of recent memory.
7. “Project X”
Another seemingly inane genre film I’ve been eager to defend, Project X is an exhilarating party comedy that pushes the idea of “invite everyone on the Internet” to the extreme. Dirty, extreme and hedonistic, it’s not always a comfortable watch, but it achieves the unhinged aesthetic of wild parties more energetically than most other modern films, and ends with one of the most powerful closing scenes I’ve seen this decade.
In contrast to the above, Trust is a heartbreaking, terrifying dramatization of the darker side of social media with a controlled, unsettling aesthetic. Directed by David Schwimmer, it stars Liana Liberato as Annie, a teenage girl who is groomed and then sexually assaulted by a 30-something man (Chris Henry Coffey) who she befriends online, thinking he’s 16. The film pulls no punches in the effects this has on Annie and her family, especially her father (Clive Owen in career-highlight performance) – and evaluates all the intense emotions and relationships that intersect as Annie’s once-happy life begins to fall apart. It’s one of the most effective social media cautionary tales yet put to screen.
Having since spawned an MTV series, Catfish is one of the most popular films about the Internet to date – and rightfully so: this often too-good-to-be-true documentary about Nev Schulman’s attempts to visit a “young woman” who he’s all but fallen in love with online – spoiler alert, she’s not who she says she is – is one of the most riveting documentaries I’ve seen. Progressing from funny to suspenseful and then to unbelievably sad, Catfish is an unmissable Digital Age documentary.
Also mentioned as one of my favorite films of 2015, Blackhat is the best film about hacking I’ve yet seen, with director Michael Mann making true art out of typing and staring at screens. Centered on a strong performance from Chris Hemsworth, Blackhat follows an intense cybercrime plot across the world, from Chicago to Hong Kong, with vibrant handheld cinematography to die for along the way. It’s more loosely about the Internet than the others on this list, with a generic romantic subplot and lots of “real” action, but Blackhat – which ends with an absolutely stunning chase sequence – is a true work of art for the Digital Age.
Whether or not you consider Edward Snowden a hero for his leaking of classified government information while working for the NSA (I wholeheartedly do), Citizenfour is not a film to be missed. Winning director Laura Poitras an Oscar, this doc follows, in almost real-time, Snowden’s leaking of info on the NSA and the uncovering of his identity as he hides out at a hotel in Hong Kong. Perhaps the most intimate depiction of the moment a public figure changed the world ever put to screen, Citizenfour is an engrossing documentary experience, the likes of which we could only have in the world we live in today.
Technically more about artificial intelligence than about the internet, Spike Jonze’s Her is nonetheless a film inspired by it – imagining a futuristic world where a lonely man, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his operating system, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson in an Oscar-worthy voice performance). A genuinely heartfelt sci-fi love story that asks all the important questions about the world we live in – and how relationships are changing in a world where face-to-face communication is becoming less and less prevalent. Fully deserved its Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
1. “The Social Network”
It should come as no surprise that David Fincher’s groundbreaking Mark Zuckerberg biopic is the first-place finisher on my list of movies about the Internet, as it’s the most popular, acclaimed and artful film ever made about the digital world. With a phenomenal, star-making lead performance from Jesse Eisenberg as the founder of Facebook, The Social Network explores, in Fincher’s signature cold, digital style, the creation of the world’s most popular social network. Brimming with quick-fire dialogue, layered performances and no limit of tense drama, The Social Network makes a riveting epic out of a series of actions by a few people that all but created the world we live in today. Not only the best film about the Internet, it’s one of the best of a generation.