Writing Nowadays–Hollywood and Magic Computers

Steven Harper PiziksYesterday, Darwin and I were watching a Big Name Spy Thriller on DVD.  It had the same plot every other spy thriller uses:

STEP ONE: Spy Protagonist learns of an object he needs to get hold of in order to save the world or himself (called “the McGuffin”).
STEP TWO: Spy rushes from exotic location to exotic location in search of the McGuffin while various Bad People try to kill him. Various vehicle chases through crowded cities ensue. Much time is spent on Magic Computers to track down various people and the McGuffin.
STEP THREE: An Evil Person within the Spy’s own organization, who is secretly employing the Bad People, tries to sabotage the Spy’s efforts and nearly succeeds.
STEP FOUR: The Spy gets the McGuffin, kills the Bad People, and kills the Evil Person.

We want to look at the Magic Computers.

Goodness me, computers can do anything these days! Especially in a movie. According to the movie Darwin and I watched, in fact, a computer and its attached hacker can:

1. delete a thousand files from another computer in a split-second
2. shut off the electricity to a single building in a foreign country with less than a minute’s work
3. alert the user when a single person’s face appears on a traffic camera anywhere in the world seconds after his face shows up
4. grab control of a landline telephone and use that phone to take control of an unconnected laptop sitting a foot away from it (I shit you not–the movie actually had a CIA hacker do this)
5. enhance a distant, blurry photo of a woman into a photo clear enough to use on a magazine cover in less than a second
6. hack into one of the most secure mainframes in the world while the owners of said mainframe watch helplessly (why they don’t simply unplug their modems goes unexplained)
7. instantly toss video and photo files to huge, Star Trek-style screens on a wall without anyone ever saying, “Hold it . . . hold it . . . dammit, the system is really slow right now . . . a couple more seconds . . . okay, here we go . . . ”
8. instantly notice when a particular person even touches a computer anywhere in the world or accesses a particular file saved on a flash drive, but CAN’T TRACK A CELL PHONE!

Not one of these things is remotely possible today. Number 4 had both Darwin and me in an outrage, it was so stupid. And this movie (one of the Jason Bourne flicks, if you have to know) isn’t in any way unusual these days.

Hollywood computers and computer operators can find out literally anything, in seconds, in ways that bear no resemblance to reality. If you need to know it or find it, a computer will do it for you, no matter how outrageous. All you need is a character who is supposed to be a “brilliant hacker.” (“Brilliant hacker” is code for “magician.”) Hackers and computers are basically witches with crystal balls.

It’s become a bad trope. True hacking or other computer ability takes years and years of practice. You need to study code, spend weeks writing programs, make friends with other hackers, and learn the seamy underside of the Internet. It’s an extremely precise field. If you make a mistake, you’ll get caught right quick, with dire consequences. The field also changes every day, sometimes every minute, and you have to keep up.

But Hollywood treats computer work like musical talent. You can sit the right person with the right talent down at a computer, and BAM! Instant hacker who can get you exactly what you need to know. It gets so bad that on TV’s SUPERGIRL, the character Winn abruptly develops from low-level IT guy into a hacker who has the ability to take down an alien computer system–with a virus he wrote in the nineties! Because . . . talent, right? Since there are people who can sit down at a piano and turn out amazing work with almost no experience, it must be the same with computers, right?

No. It doesn’t work that way. All the computer talent in the world won’t grant you knowledge and precision. Hollywood is just using a cheap writer’s trick. As a writer, I can understand wanting a quick tool to push the story forward. The Magic Computer will do that. The problem is, Hollywood does it so often, and so badly, that it’s become a bad, BAD cliche.

And have you noticed that no one ever touches a mouse? It’s true! Hollywood is all about fingers chattering on the keyboard. In reality, of course, everyone–including hackers–spends most of their time with mouse and cursor. A clicking keyboard is more dynamic on the silver screen, though, so Hollywood runs with it. Except we’ve noticed. (Now that I’ve pointed it out to you, you won’t be able to help but notice it!)

Please, Hollywood–end the Magic Computer. We know better.

–Steven Harper Piziks

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Danny Large



Writing Nowadays–Hollywood and Magic Computers — 2 Comments

  1. The magic computers always seem to me plot-accelerator tropes: in the old days, there was always a phone nearby if the characters needed one (or not, if the plot required, which was closer to the truth), there is always a parking space out front, after a clear freeway drive/chase (those two have LA people howling with laughter; imagine a pulse pounding two mile an hour chase in locked in traffic) , and so forth.

  2. This is very common on doctor and cop TV shows as well. You remember the one starring Jack Klugman? I can’t remember the name of it, but at the moment of plot crisis he’d always say, “Let’s run it under the electron microscope.” This would always produce the solution to the mystery. It drove my sister-in-law (the veterinary neurologist) crazy, since she uses an electron microscope every day.