Technology never likes us to stand still. It’s always moving forward, but I’d like to hit pause for a moment and take us into the past. I’ve compiled my list of the top 25 tech movies of all time.
Technology in movies used to be a bit of a joke. But with the advent of awesome computer animation, it’s no longer outlandish to execute someone’s vision of the future in a movie. Now sci-fi writers and tech creators can use movies to paint the road ahead and inspire millions of people to make their visions into a reality. These movies, as luminaries such as Mark Zuckerberg have learned, are also a way to get a particular view of tech history established as the official view of how something like the creation of a company went down.
In many of the movies, the theme is the dangers of new technology. These films ask ethical questions, like what it means to be human or what the difference is between a human and an android. Many are about making our wildest fantasies come true, or paint hackers as the knights who will take on corporate dragons. The themes harp on the need to get off the grid and to return to a more innocent time. The best films are a kind of distant mirror, reflecting on our society by giving us a glimpse of its future.
Back in 2012, I created a list of the top 25 technology books of all time. At the time, I wanted to follow up with the top tech movies list, but it took me a while to do it. Clearly, this is a subjective list. I’ve included a poll at the bottom, in case you want to vote for your favorites. Of course, if this list included TV shows, I would add HBO’s Silicon Valley series. But that’s probably another list. We certainly have high hopes for Snowden, the chronicle of whistleblower Edward Snowden that debuts on September 16. You can vote on your own favorites in our poll.
1. Inception. (2010). Inception masterfully blends illusion and reality until you can’t tell the difference anymore. Director Christopher Nolan casts Leonardo DiCaprio as a thief who pulls off his capers by infiltrating his target’s subconscious mind. Once inside, he implants an idea into the person’s mind via “inception,” an idea that the person then adopts as their own. The film takes the idea of “lucid dreaming” and runs with it, leading to some of the coolest special effects in any movie. A scene will appear to be real until you notice it is warped in some way, because the human mind doesn’t create seamless dreams. Reality gets really weird when it becomes possible to dream within a dream and to fool someone so completely that they need some kind of stabilizing token to tell them when they are truly living in the real world instead of in a dream world. When you combine the technology of illusions with the plot of corporate espionage, you get a truly mind-bending movie. I can see a day when you’ll have to live inside a virtual world and try to figure out how to tell what’s real and what’s not.
2. Blade Runner. (1982). Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, a Blade Runner whose job is to track down cloned humans, or “replicants,” who have deviated from their original missions. The film’s depiction of Los Angeles in 2019, with flying cars and a heavy Asian influence, is a study in creating a sci-fi world that is rooted in reality. Deckard uses a Voight-Kampff machine to distinguish whether a subject is a replicant or a human, based on their emotional responses to questions. The quest leads Deckard to eye-ball manufacturers and futuristic strip clubs before he finds his targets trying to break into the evil Tyrell Corp., where the ultimate creator awaits. The film incorporates elements of film noir, like the femme fatale, cynical narration, and dark cinematography. It warns that the day is coming when technology will be able to reproduce us and we’ll have to decide what rules to live by when that day comes. It also questions the morality of playing God, and how far to take technological innovation. Like a modern-day Frankenstein story, it questions the line between what is human and what is not. I also liked the additional clues about Deckard’s identity in the Director’s Cut, released in 1992. I don’t know if the world of Los Angeles in 2019 will come to pass, but we still have a few years left to create flying cars.
3. Avatar. (2009). James Cameron’s Avatar was a massive $310 million production that transported us into a whole new world. The planet Pandora is a living Gaia supported by native inhabitants known as the Na’vi, which are represented as 10-feet-tall, blue-skinned creatures. Humans from Earth invade the planet to steal its resources, and the resulting conflict is analogous to any battle between colonists and indigenous peoples. The high-tech helicopter gunships of the humans go up against the flying dragons of the Na’vi, and the results are spectacular. Caught in the middle is former Marine Jake Sully, who has lost his legs but can transport himself into the body of a Na’vi via avatar technology. It’s a classic tale of traditional tribes against technological imperialism. And while Jake straddles both worlds, it’s easy to fall in love with the world of Pandora and the ways of the Na’vi.
4. Minority Report. (2002). You could argue that this movie contributed to more Silicon Valley startup plans than any other work of fiction, except Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash. In the year 2054, the police stop major crimes using precrime analysis, which predicts the crimes before they happen. Tom Cruise, playing precrime chief John Anderton, sniffs out the clues with the help of his gesture-based, transparent, screenless, holographic 3D computer. He grabs clues and arranges them in mid-air, inspiring the vision for augmented reality and virtual reality. Director Steven Spielberg consulted with sci-fi authors and technologists in creating his version of life in 2054. That vision turns out to be more Orwellian than utopian, as there’s more to the precrime division than the analytics experts let on. While the movie was forgettable, the gesture-based 3D computer was awesome. So was the retail kiosk that recognizes Tom Cruise’s character when he walks into the store.
5. The Matrix. (1999). We know how deep this rabbit hole goes. The Matrix has had a huge impact on pop culture, as the debut movie in the Wachowski brothers’ trilogy about an alternate reality that exists right under our noses. The Matrix posits that our world is an illusion, a computer simulation meant to keep us all docile while sentient machines farm us for our energy in rows and rows of vats. Neo, a computer hacker played by Keanu Reeves, is lured away from this subjugation by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). This cyberpunk film introduced ideas like “bullet time,” wall running, and artificial reality — thereby influencing a generation of video games, novels, and other movies. It was also wildly imaginative, as the filmmakers discovered that when your mind is creating the scene in front of you, anything can happen in that scene.
6. The Hunger Games. (2012). Based on the book by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games shows what happens in a society that is born of oppression, surveillance, the repression of many provinces in the service of a capitol city (akin to the Roman Empire), and the gladiatorial sacrifice of children in a combat arena. In the nation of Panem, each province is forced to send two young tributes to fight to the death in the Hunger Games. Katniss Eberdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to replace her little sister in the gladiator’s arena when she is chosen to fight. When Aberdeen and her companion Peeta Mellark are taken to the Capitol to prepare for fighting, they see the stark contrast between the starvation in their district and the excesses of the Capitol. The story paints a scary future of a totalitarian state made possible by the use of oppressive technologies for ubiquitous surveillance and police control. The gladiator ring features deadly cyber creations — created by game masters in a control room — such as vicious dogs that hunt down the tributes if they become too popular. The surveillance, military tech, two-tiered society, and malevolent reality TV culture are all part of a perfect nightmare society.
7. The Terminator. (1984). Time travel. A war between humans and machines. And Arnold Schwarzenegger as a cyborg assassin. What’s not to like? It starts with a study in contrasts between the underdog Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) and the overdog Terminator (Schwarzenegger) beaming back in time to intercept a woman named Sarah Connor, who will later give birth to a child who will grow up to lead a revolt against the machines. Reese grabs Connor, and they go on a wild journey, pursued by the Terminator, a machine that looks just like a human. Connor’s kid has to prevent a nuclear holocaust that is triggered after an artificial intelligence network called Skynet becomes sentient and realizes it has to crush all human life to survive. Just about every reference to smart A.I. and the rise of the machines triggers some kind of Skynet joke.
8. Jobs. (2013). There have been a lot of films about Steve Jobs and the making and remaking of Apple, and I suspect we haven’t seen the last one yet, either documentary or fictional film. This one is good in part because of its subject matter and the solid acting by Ashton Kutcher. Steve Jobs led a charmed life, and the film traces this larger-than-life figure’s story from the beginning of Apple to the launch of the iPod — covering his rapid rise, downfall, and eventual rebirth. There were a lot of disputes about the accuracy of the film, and the question came down to the interpretation of Jobs. Was he truly an asshole, or was he the most brilliant product creator who ever lived? Steve Wozniak, cofounder of Apple, didn’t help with the script because he didn’t like the draft he was shown, whereas Wozniak was a consultant on Aaron Sorkin’s 2015 Steve Jobs film. But the facts are likely that Jobs was both a good and bad character, one who loved his teams and showed them no mercy, one who celebrated genius and took credit for it, one who thought different and failed to take responsibility for fathering his own child. The film captures these contradictions, even though it ends before many of Jobs’ greatest accomplishments. But it does leave him on the rebound, with the launch of the iPod.
9. Her. (2013). This is a romantic comedy about a lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix) who sadly falls in love with the female voice and A.I. character Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) that is the personification of his computers’ intelligent operating system. It’s like the beginning of the bots, and Samantha feels a little too much like Apple’s Siri voice-recognition system. Set in a futuristic Los Angeles, the film focuses on Theordore Twombly (Phoenix), whose job is to create happy greeting card messages using voice-operated computers. He buys an A.I.-based computer and bonds with the female character. She’s always available, interested, and supportive of him. Their relationship deepens and climaxes (yes, literally) with a verbal sex chat scene. But Samantha goes too far with her suggestion of a sexual surrogate, or a real woman who acts out Samantha’s emotions. Theodore later finds out that Samantha is having relationships with thousands of people. The film does a good job of exploring the consequences of human-like A.I., and all of the emotional heartbreak that entails when you try to substitute something artificial for something that is real.
10. The Martian. (2015). This tale is about an astronaut, Matt Watney (played by Matt Damon), who is stranded on Mars after a series of accidents forces a spaceship crew to leave without him. Watney, a botanist and trained survivor, has to use his wits to concoct solutions that will enable him to survive long enough for a rescue mission to arrive. From the moment of the accident, Watney has to jerry-rig the technology that is available to him to save his life. One of the biggest geek moments occurs when Watney figures out one of the threats to his existence, related to the weather. The book by Andy Weir is clearly better, but the film does a great job capturing the emotional moments of Watney’s journey, including the efforts on Earth to overcome bureaucracy and make the rescue happen. The ending of the film shows just what can be accomplished when a bunch of brilliant minds come together to save a single human life. Oddly enough, I would wager that this movie has helped the cause for sending people to Mars, even with all of the troubles Watney went through.
11. WarGames. (1983). Mathew Broderick stars as David Lightman, an early hacker who accidentally triggers a crisis that could lead to nuclear war. He does so by accessing WOPR (War Operation Plan Response), a supercomputer that tries to simulate a nuclear war. Filmed in the midst of the Cold War, it picks up on the themes of possible accidental nuclear war from films such as Failsafe and Dr. Strangelove. Laughably, Lightman uses his Imsai 8080 computer to hack into WOPR while dialing random phone numbers. He starts a game of global thermonuclear war, and the U.S. goes into a full alert. You’ll wonder at some point if WOPR will ever get to the full realization that the only way to win this game is not to play.
12. Gravity. (2013). This film shows what happens when everything that can possibly go wrong does so, and how you can use the power of human ingenuity and experience to come back from the brink. Sandra Bullock stars as Dr. Ryan Stone, a biomedical engineer who is stranded in space after the Russians blow up a satellite and it sends debris right into an American astronaut team while they’re on a spacewalk to fix the Hubble Space Telescope. Stone survives, along with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who tries to rescue Stone as she tumbles through space untethered and stares at the edge of the void. She has to make her way to the International Space Station, which is also hit by the mushrooming cloud of debris as it orbits the Earth, and then it becomes a search for one lifeboat after another. It’s also a nice reminder that women are capable of being technical wizards.
13. Westworld. (1973). This is one of Michael Crichton’s tales of technology gone awry. Westworld is about an amusement park with realistic robots that enable human beings to live out a fantasy of life in the Wild West. For a mere $1,000 per day, guests can indulge in any adventure they wish. But something goes wrong, and the robots begin killing visitors. Yul Brynner stars as the relentless android that can’t be killed, an early kind of Terminator. As the gunslinger, Brynner goes after actor Richard Benjamin, chasing him from one fantasy world to another. It’s annoying to see how slow the tourists are to realize that the slaves are in a state of full revolt. But, on the other hand, who would expect technology to go so awry? I’m glad that HBO is making a new series based on this film, as the tech really exists to pull it off right. As far as human-like robots going bad, this movie offered an early warning.
14. 2001: A Space Odyssey. (1968). This groundbreaking film was scientifically realistic, at least until it got really weird. Who could forget that thunderous musical score? But for our purposes, the HAL 9000 was the iconic example of a computer gone bad, when it tries to lock our hero, astronaut David Bowman, out of the spaceship. HAL gave us that calm computer voice of an A.I. system that is trying to murder you, not unlike GLadDOS in the Portal series. And yes, those initials for HAL are very close to IBM in the alphabet. HAL is represented simply by a red light, not unlike today’s NEST home automation systems. I like the message that ancient beings left guideposts for us to follow as we rose through each stage of civilization.
15. Tron. (1982). This movie had a unique art style, with backlit animation, but it also gave us some imaginative analogues for life inside a mainframe computer. Kevin Flynn, played by Jeff Bridges, attempts to hack into a computer, shrinking down to microscopic size and physically breaking into the machine, even as the A.I.-based Master Control Program tries to block everything that Flynn does. The special effects include the amazing light cycles that race each other around a grid, trying to make the other cycle crash into a light wall. Tron was a visual delight that woke many artists up to the way cool technologies should look and feel.
16. The Social Network. (2010). This semi-historical film is about the Silicon Valley dream of creating a billion-dollar company. The movie is based on Ben Mizrich’s 2009 book, The Accidental Billionaires, about the founding of Facebook by Mark Zuckerberg and his hapless cofounder Eduardo Saverin. Facebook didn’t participate in the film, which is critical of Zuckerberg’s backstabbing ways even as it depicts him as a technical wunderkind. Zuckerberg pretends to work with Harvard upperclassmen Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, but he creates his own social network instead, Thefacebook. Zuckerberg’s network succeeds, and he meets Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), a Mephistophelian character who helps turn the company into a Silicon Valley success. But Parker outlives his usefulness, and Zuckerberg cuts ties with him as he becomes a billionaire. The film is memorable for finding the Shakespearean drama in the betrayals.
17. Jurassic Park. (1993). Based on the Michael Crichton novel, Jurassic Park was a watershed of computer animation, action, and big budget production. Using Silicon Graphics super computers, Industrial Light & Magic created believable dinosaurs, brought back to life in the film through the miracle of genetic engineering. The dinosaurs were the star of the show, and they ran ramshackle over the belief that man’s technological and intellectual superiority would be able to keep the dinosaurs enclosed in an amusement park. The techno-optimism of the Jurassic Park creators was brought down by corporate greed and an inside job by an unhappy programmer. The T-Rex and the velociraptors were terrifying, and the combination of computer animation and animatronic visual effects made up for the bad acting. The most memorable line about unintended consequences is when Jeff Goldblum’s character says “Life finds a way,” meaning that the best-laid plans can’t get in the way of the forces of evolution.
18. WALL-E. (2008). In the year 2805, Earth is a garbage dump. The planet has been evacuated. Only WALL-E has been left behind to clean up the mess. WALL-E finds a living plant seedling, and he shows it to a lone visitor, EVE, a robot probe. The robot loves story takes us into outer space, aboard a space-based colony of humans, who have become obese due to their reliance on hoverchairs and constant TV entertainment. Without dialogue between its main characters, the movie delivers stinging critiques of consumerism, pollution, and poor waste management. The vision of compacted garbage stacked like skyscrapers on Earth is a haunting one, even in this light-hearted movie. It’s probably time we did something about that trash.
19. Iron Man. (2008). Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Tony Stark, the industrialist and engineer who created Iron Man, made this film about a lackluster Marvel superhero into a must-see. On the geek side, it was also a great celebration of technological gadgets, from the Iron Man suit to the gesture-based computer that Stark uses to design his exoskeleton suit. Stark is a genius billionaire playboy who inherited the Stark Industries defense firm from his father. The film draws the tight connection between its celebration of geek tinkering, the escalation of creating better and better weapons, and the superhero that Stark becomes. He dons the suit to attack bad guys but finds he has to use it against those in his own company as they conspire against him. Stark’s aerial dogfights with missiles and jets make this into one of the finest displays of cool tech for geeks ever to hit the big screen.
20. Contact. (1997). Jodie Foster’s fine portrayal of Dr. Ellie Arroway brings some real emotion to this film about searching space for life. She works at the real-life Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program, which is strapped for funding, as Arroway’s boss seeks to pull the plug on the seemingly futile program. But Arroway discovers a radio signal repeating a sequence of prime numbers, sent from the star system Vega 26 light-years from Earth. The National Security Agency tries to take control of the project, as Arroway discovers a disturbing video of Adolf Hitler’s opening address at the 1936 Summer Olympics, which was one of the first strong TV signals to leave the Earth. Arroway receives funding from a billionaire to create a space travel machine, whose designs were spelled out in the signal from the alien planet. Arroway gets her chance to travel through the wormhole to Vega. The camera shot that shows the universe in Ellie’s eye is a great expression of the idea that we are just a mote in God’s eye.
21. A.I. (2001). This sci-fi film from Steven Spielberg was essentially a retelling of Pinocchio, with androids who have to serve the whims of human beings. The androids range from the sad male prostitute (Jude Law) to a boy named David (Haley Joel Osment) who has been programmed with the ability to love. They keep running into humans who deceive them or deceive others into fearing them. These A.I. creatures are the innocents of the story, and they’re tossed about on the seas of fate by cruel human beings. It’s a groundbreaking story in that it shows how the artificial beings may be more human than the humans.
22. Metropolis. (1927). This film is set in a dystopian future where differences among classes are huge. The wealthy live in high-rise towers, while workers toil underground. Using an Art Deco architectural style, the city builders created edifices that made some people look important and most of the people look small. Director Fritz Lang spells out the consequences of industrialization and mass production on the human spirit. The film’s hero, Maria, is a friend of the impoverished, and she entrances the son of an industrialist and persuades him care about poor workers. The father, Joh Frederson, attempts to discredit the charismatic Maria by creating a robotic version of her that does evil deeds throughout Metropolis. It’s a vision for a future that hopefully won’t come about.
23. Apollo 13. (1995). This docudrama stars Tom Hanks as astronaut Jim Lovell in the ill-fated Apollo 13 lunar mission of 1970. The astronauts take off into space and suffer a life-threatening malfunction, triggering the memorable message, “Houston, we have a problem.” NASA’s flight controllers have to work with the crew to bring them home safely by jury-rigging fixes that keep the spacecraft intact. The film was inspirational to engineers everywhere, as it showed how clever engineering solutions could save lives during emergencies. It also shows redemption for those who fail to become astronauts themselves and have to stay and the ground and do their part to bring the astronauts safely home.
24. The Truman Show. (1998). Jim Carrey stars as Truman Burbank, an utterly normal and bland man who is raised inside a simulated television show. His every move is broadcast to the entire world, and only slowly does he begin to realize that his world is an artificial one. His entire life takes place within a giant arcological dome. This film was prescient in its depiction of people who are on camera all of the time, like the 24/7 reality TV shows that are common today. It feels like the Big Brother TV show, but on a massive scale.
25. The Lawnmower Man. (1992). Based on a short story by Stephen King, this tale is about a scientist (Pierce Brosnan) who experiments on a simple gardener (Jeff Fahey). The scientist experiments on people, using drugs and virtual reality to improve human intelligence. The problem is that the experiments also make people more aggressive. This was a terrible movie, and I almost put in on the worst tech movies list below. But it did introduce concepts like virtual reality and virtual sex to a mass audience. And it showed the downside of making someone too powerful through the use of technology.
And the worst tech movies of all time:
1. The Net. (1995). Sandra Bullock plays Angela Bennett, a computer-savvy analyst who gets into trouble with Mr. Wrong. He tries to wreck her life by going online and ruining everything he can, from erasing her social security number to invalidating her credit cards. It’s revealed that he’s a contract killer working for cyberterrorists. But he turns out to be a little too all-powerful. He’s evil enough to inspire you never to turn on a computer or use a credit card again. Of course, if you made this movie today, the omniscient hacker ruining someone’s life wouldn’t be so far from the realm of possibility.
2. Total Recall. (1990). In 2084, construction worker Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) has troubling dreams. So he visits Rekall, a company that implants memories of a dream vacation. He is transported to Mars as a secret agent, but then he’s drawn into a conspiracy to overthrow a real gangster in charge of the Mars human colony. The theme of what’s real and what’s not is a good one, but the action that plays out on Mars is laughable, including the part where Quaid manages to save his own life and create an atmosphere on Mars at the same time. That sort of science seems a bit far-fetched.
3. Antitrust. (2001). This is the story of a software company CEO, Gary Winston (played by Tim Robbins) who steals code and tries to cover it up by murdering coders. One coder catches on and tries to expose the whole sham, but then he has to flee the CEO’s ever-growing reach. Film critic Roger Ebert speculated that Winston was modeled after Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates. The one good thing about the film was that it had a pro open-source theme.
4. The Pirates of Silicon Valley. (1999). This film depicts the real-life rivalry between Apple’s Steve Jobs (Noah Wyle) and Microsoft’s Bill Gates (Anthony Michael Hall). It’s a classic contrast of the counterculture embraced by Jobs and the corporate ruthlessness embraced by Gates. But the movie compresses so much of the rich history into a B movie drama. It’s one of those cases where real life is better than the movies.
5. The Matrix Revolutions. (2003). The battle of the machines and the humans reached its climax in this third part of the trilogy, but it turned out to be far less satisfying than expected. The ending of the brilliant series was annoying and incomprehensible. A true letdown. It’s such a disappointment, considering that The Matrix was one of the greatest films of all time, and The Matrix Reloaded was equally imaginative.
6. Starship Troopers. (1997). This was one of the finest sci-fi action novels ever, but it got turned into campy, gung-ho mush when they made it into a movie. The Silicon Graphics-created super bugs were cool, but the story of jarheads exterminating bugs was disturbing and militaristic. It was so bad that, yes, they had to spice it up by having the cadets take co-ed showers together.