Every creative person goes through phases where they question their commitment to their work, and software developers are no different. Maybe a recent project failed, maybe a simple app turned into a beast, or maybe you've been up to your eyeballs in debugging for weeks and you're wondering, "Why do I do this again?"
During these times of disrelish, we tend to forget about the spark of excitement that got us coding in the first place. We become so focused on the excruciating details of whatever issue we're fighting with that we fail to see the magic we create when we write software.
Oftentimes when you're feeling unmotivated, the best thing to do is step away from your work and get some perspective. You have to rediscover the "why" behind what you're doing. My strategy? Watch a movie about tech. When I see characters discovering the magic of computers, it reminds me of my own intoxicating journey into the world of software. Here's a list of my 10 favorite movies about computers and technology. Every time I watch them I can't help but get excited about coding again. I hope they have the same effect on you.
10. The Social Network
No list of great tech movies would be complete with out David Fincher's The Social Network. The movie is adapted from Ben Mezrich's 2009 book The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal, and fictionally portrays the founding of Facebook and the mess of lawsuits that followed. The film is beautifully shot, impeccably written and masterfully edited. It touches on a number of powerful issues such as desire for acceptance, intellectual property rights, misogyny in tech and the dark side of university social culture. At the Oscars, it received eight nominations, including Best Picture (which it should have won), Best Director (Fincher), and Best Actor (Eisenberg). It ended up winning three for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, and Best Film Editing.
One of my favorite things about this movie (and all David Fincher movies, for that matter) is the director’s impeccable attention to technical detail. During Zuckerberg’s soliloquy about creating FaceMash, for example, Fincher could have just thrown together a bunch of nonsense tech jargon and called it a day. Instead, Eisenberg's lines actually outline a technologically viable plan for creating the website, and he even references using technologies that Zuckerberg was familiar with at the time. I really appreciate that in a film, and it's one of the reasons why this one sucked me in as much as it did.
Obviously the film is a work of fiction. Nevertheless, it always gets me raring to go. Every time I watch it I end up thinking, “What am I doing with my life? I should be building something RIGHT NOW.”
1983’s WarGames is a classic. It stars a young Matthew Broderick as an 80’s kid hacker who unwittingly accesses WOPR (War Operation Plan Response), a United States military supercomputer programmed to predict possible outcomes of nuclear war. Thinking it's a computer game, he gets WOPR to run a nuclear war simulation, causing a nuclear missile scare that nearly starts World War III. Oops.
This movie has everything: clever hacker kid who outsmarts the grown-ups, awesome 80’s music and some pretty decent cinematography as well (it was actually nominated for an Oscar). It's a ton of fun, and will make you yearn for the days before everyone had computers in their pockets and kids had to hack into government servers in order to find decent video games.
While Spike Jonze’s Her doesn’t directly address working with computers, it does serve as a fascinating meditation on the role that technology plays in our lives. Her envisions the technology of tomorrow not as a dominating centerpiece of our physical world but as a graceful supplement to it. Instead of 7" phablets and clunky wearables, the characters sport only wireless earbuds and tiny viewing screens. The movie makes it clear early on that humans of the future maintain a deep nostalgia for analog media. The main character makes his living, for example, by writing traditional handwritten letters for customers too lazy to write their own. People in Jonze’s future don’t want their gadgets to dominate their lives.
Nevertheless, human attachment to technology has grown stronger than ever. In street scenes, for instance, we see that the average person spends most of their time engaged with their computers, rather than with the world around them. Subway riders chat idly, but into their earpieces rather than with one another. Her is predominantly about loneliness and the search for meaning, but it provides a rich and engrossing take on what computing might look like in the future. Given the recent explosion we've seen in voice-based personal assistants such as Alexa and Google Assistant, it might not be too far off.
Primer will not hold your hand. It was not written for the average audience. It was made by engineers, for engineers. And for that, it is brilliant. Produced for only $7,000 dollars, the film uses an experimental plot structure to chronicle the accidental discovery of time travel by two small time hardware engineers working out of a garage. Before long, their use of the invention has spun out of control, and they must contend with the very real, very serious consequences of their world-shattering discovery.
I have to say, this film is extremely difficult to follow if you aren’t paying close attention. Esquire critic Mike D’Angelo argued that “anybody who claims he fully understands what’s going on in Primer after seeing it just once is either a savant or a liar.” Yet this is precisely why the film rings true. Watching Primer really feels as though you are watching two engineers make the biggest “holy shit” discovery of their lives. If you’ve ever built something you were proud of and watched it come to life in spectacular fashion, you’ll know the look on their faces and the quickness in their speech all too well. There is an electricity in this film that bring even the most apathetic engineer back to life. A must watch.
6. Revolution OS
Revolution OS is basically the authoritative documentary about the free software movement. While it's a bit dated (released in 2001), the film should be required viewing for anyone who cares about open source. Revolution OS features lengthy interviews with OSS heavyweights like Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds and Eric S. Raymond, and does a deep dive on both the movement’s history and philosophy.
Whenever people ask me what I mean when I say “I work with open source software,” I always recommend this documentary. Show it to your mom, show it to your friends, show it to the least technical person you know and the most technical person you know. Nothing explains the movement more clearly and concisely than this film. If you don’t believe me, go watch it yourself.
5. Ex Machina
Ex Machina is a refreshing take on the tired AI-gone-wrong sci-fi trope. Whereas most movies about artificial intelligence get stuck on the surface question of where draw the line between what makes intelligence "artificial" versus "real", Ex Machina goes deeper. The plot is essentially one big Turing Test, using the fictional discovery of "strong AI" to explore a fundamental anxiety that underpins all social interaction: does the person you're talking to really like you, or are they just faking it?
Beyond its fascinating story, Ex Machina is a beautifully made movie. The cinematography is breathtaking, which is unsurprising given that the film was shot in a real remote hotel in Norway. Every time I watch this film I'm reminded of the power we software developers have to create beauty and meaning in the world. I'm also reminded of the tremendous responsibility with which this power comes. Ex Machina makes a subtle but powerful statement: be careful what you say to your computer.
4. The Matrix
1999’s The Matrix is pretty much the quintessential sci-fi hacker movie. It depicts a dystopian future in which reality as perceived by most humans is actually computer simulation called “the Matrix”, created by sentient machines in order to subdue the human race. Hacker “Neo” (Keanu Reeves) is discovered and freed by a group of human rebels who regularly hack into the Matrix to fight the machines and free minds. The Matrix pretty much single-handedly introduced the concept of “hackers” into the mainstream, all while providing an unparalleled modern rework of Plato’s allegory of the cave.
This movie has it all: hacking, future dystopian tech, awesome fight scenes and groundbreaking film techniques. It has inspired thousands of people to become interested in computers, and to this day remains one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made. I’m almost certain that you have seen The Matrix before, but if you haven’t, watch it now. And if you really enjoyed it, consider checking out The Animatrix, which I personally feel explores the fundamental concept of the Matrix in much more interesting ways than the original film (oh boy, here comes the flame-war).
3. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
A warning: this movie might be a little disturbing to the more sensitive movie-goer.
Nevertheless, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a fantastic thriller follows journalist Mikael Blomkvist on his quest to find out the fate of a woman from a wealthy family who disappeared forty years prior. Blomkvist recruits the help of an enigmatic female computer hacker named Lisbeth Salander, and together they slowly unravel the violent history of a seemingly sleepy Nordic town. While I typically dislike murder mystery thrillers, I have found myself watching this film again and again, enthralled by Rooney Mara’s performance as the hacker Lisbeth Salander.
Mara’s character is brilliant and unscrupulous, yet her dark past lends her a fascinating complexity. The survivor of a traumatic childhood, Salander is highly asocial and has difficulty connecting to people and making friends. Nevertheless, her ability to exploit computers combined with her excellent social engineering prowess makes her an inspiring figure for anyone interested in computer security. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is honestly one of the most realistic portrayals of computer security I have ever seen in a Hollywood film. If this movie doesn’t make you want to dust off Metasploit and try to spy on your friends, nothing will.
Noah is a groundbreaking short film that explores the way modern youth interacts through social media. The film’s most notable aspect is its medium: the whole thing is a screencast. Created by Canadian film students Walter Woodman and Patrick Cederberg, the film begins when our high school senior protagonist opens up his laptop, and the narrative takes place entirely on his computer and phone screens. Through the course of the film we watch “Noah’s” relationship with his girlfriend fall apart through social media in a way that I’m sure many viewers of the film have actually experienced in real life.
The attention to detail here is impeccable. Whether because of the apps used or the way in which the user interacts with the computer, this film should look all too familiar to the average tech-using 20-something. While I should point out that the film does have a slightly amateurish quality – it was made by film students, after all – I would highly recommend Noah to anyone who has an interest in the way that social media affects our everyday relationships. You won’t find a more realistic and compelling take anywhere else.
1. TPB AFK
TPB AFK (The Pirate Bay: Away From Keyboard) is by far my favorite movie about tech, and one of my favorite documentaries of all time. Unlike most documentaries, which seem to be shot on GoPros by jackhammer crews, TPB AFK‘s cinematography rivals that of big-budget feature films. It really feels like you’re watching a big-budget Hollywood movie – only, what you’re actually watching are the three people that Hollywood hates most. Combined with its masterful editing and ominous, captivating soundtrack, TPB AFK is worth a view for its cinematography alone.
What really makes this documentary stand out, however, is its nuanced portrayal of the ongoing debate about intellectual property. TPB AFK makes some compelling arguments for copyright reform; yet, the film most definitely isn’t pro-piracy propaganda. The filmmakers don't shy away from openly displaying some of the shortcomings of the protagonists’ viewpoints on intellectual property. Even the most staunch proponent of information freedom cannot come away from this film without questioning whether a no-holds-barred, grab everything and run approach to copyright really makes sense. Likewise, even the most strong opponent of copyright must concede the validity of many of the points made by TPB proponents in the film. Given the most recent Pirate Bay takedown, this film is an especially timely watch for the holiday season this year. If you can only watch one movie on this list, it should be TPB AFK.