Beyond 'The Social Network': Best Movies About the Internet


Columbia Pictures

The Social Network, David Fincher's founding-of-Facebook movie with Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Timberlake, and a script by Aaron Sorkin, opens the New York Film Festival in a little less than a month. Its full trailer, released mid-July, had some panting and some shrugging, but buzz on the film has only continued to build since a Film Comment rave by Scott Foundas was posted online late last week.

"It is a movie of people typing in front of computer screens and talking in rooms that is as suspenseful as any more obvious thriller," writes Foundas of the film, in a rebuttal to the widely held belief that watching people stare at monitors is inherently uncinematic. With Middle Men now in select theaters, and the Facebook-centric Sundance documentary Catfish opening later this year, it seems that American movies are finally (belatedly) taking on the subject of Web 2.0, or at least the idea of the Internet as an open-frontier marketplace.

Of course, the Internet has been a presence in films at least from the moment Matthew Broderick dialed up in WarGames (1983), and any number of techno-thrillers since have featured characters furiously typing away in last-minute attempts to hack into difficult-to-access mainframes. In Stealth (2005) a wired warplane (a smart drone?) even downloads every song ever—only to blast insipid alternative rock over its built-in speakers.

Depictions of movie characters' daily use of the Internet haven't advanced much, either. In films from Swimfan (2002) to this summer's Dinner With Schmucks, instant-messaging programs are depicted as places where stalkers (in both films women whose very forwardness is meant to signal danger) do their dirty work—always on bizarre-looking off-brand chat interfaces. There is kinder, gentler IMing on display in romantic comedies like You've Got Mail, in which AOL plays the last frontier for lonely hearts. But even in the brasher comedy Knocked Up the Web is immediately given an unsafe/unseemly association. "I Googled 'murder,'" confesses a little girl to horrified parents early in the film.

For my money, the best kids-up-to-Internet-mischief scenes of all time are in the otherwise quirk-damaged Me and You and Everyone We Know, a 2005 film written and directed by Miranda July. In the movie, the sons of a shoe salesman (John Hawkes), Robby (Brandon Ratcliff) and Peter (Miles Thompson), have a joint late-night chat session with an older woman that begins as an excuse for the adolescent Peter to use some colorful language, but becomes something much more serious for his six-year-old brother. Another film might use such a recourse to voyeur-tinged vulgarity to proclaim the Internet as the death of all values—as did the Diane Lane thriller Untraceable, which tried to float the lead-balloon idea that someday people might pay to view executions on their cell phones—but Me and You and Everyone We Know thankfully allows them just to be funny.

Adoration (2008), written and directed by Atom Egoyan, also features an unusually nuanced, though more stylized, take on how kids communicate online. The Canadian filmmaker hasnt made a very good film for a very long time—Id say not since Felicias Journey (1999), though the general consensus is that he peaked with The Sweet Hereafter (1997). Despite its obvious return-to-elliptical-form attempt to evoke Egoyans mid-90s heyday, Adoration is very much in keeping with the directors 21st-century slump. It does, however, contain enough genuinely intriguing ideas to avoid becoming an object of ridicule—more than can be said for the recent Chloe. In Adoration, a student named Simon (Devon Bostick) takes a classroom dramatic exercise to another level, staying in terrorists-son character even while hes at home in front of his computer. Simon communicates via video chat, and his screen is split into a Hollywood Squares array of separate windows—a nice way of visualizing his connectedness, and how and why his story goes viral. Its such a relief to see tech-savvy teen characters who also happen to be thoughtful and well-spoken that its almost possible to forgive the film its not-up-to-snuff dialogue.

Perhaps it's a bit of a cheat to finish this discussion of how online communication is depicted in fiction films of various stripes by citing a documentary, but perhaps the most sobering film about the social and commercial potential of the Internet is Ondi Timoner's We Live in Public (2009). The film concerns the dot-com boom of the early 1990s, and more specifically one of its oracles, Josh Harris, who created the first Internet television network as well as the monthlong art installation/reality TV program that gives Timoner's film its title.

Timoner (Dig!), a friend of Harris's and a participant in some of his early projects, is a little too ready to treat her subject as a visionary; the last shot of the film is a freeze-frame of Harris looking over his shoulder. But her portrait of Harris and his way-ahead-of-the-curve broadband thinking is on balance a clear-eyed examination of the uneasy public-private push-and-pull the Web set in motion decades ago. In many ways Fincher's superb Zodiac, about people struggling to make meaning out of a ceaseless flow of case information, now seems like an apt dress rehearsal for The Social Network, but hopefully the director will touch as well on some of the big-brotherhood issues at play in We Live in Public.