Hollywood and Hacking: The 1980s – kid hackers, nerds and Richard Pryor

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For the past 30 years, Hollywood has consistently struggled to depict computer hacking in accurate and exciting ways. The history of Hollywood and hacking is littered with lazy writing, absurdly unrealistic computer interfaces and stereotypical “nerd” characters. But in amongst the idiocy we’ve also seen certain films influencing governmental policy, inspiring entire sub-cultural identities and guiding mainstream attitudes around computer security.

From WarGames to Mr Robot we’ve tracked a path from the rigorously accurate to the amusingly ridiculous. In the first part of this three-part series of video features we are going back to the 1980s, when computer hacking first appeared on the big screen.

It’s a tale of bizarre inspirations and comical digressions, but to begin let’s travel back to find the first on-screen reference to computer hackers in a Hollywood film.

Watch the video below for a complete trip through computer hacking, 1980s style.

“Just a little hacking”

Back in 1982, a little film called Tron appeared in cinemas. As well as revolutionizing computer graphics in cinema we were treated to a scene where Jeff Bridges’ character casually notes, “I have been doing a little hacking here as a matter of fact,” and with that the storm gates opened. Tron was not particularly interested in the idea of hacking per se, instead it served up a psychedelic wonderland of neon-infused computer mainframes.

But the very next year the cinematic landscape shifted with the release of WarGames, the first, and still to this day one of the more accurate representations of computer hacking in Hollywood cinema.

Starring Matthew Broderick as a happy-go-lucky teenage hacker who inadvertently almost triggers World War Three by hacking a US military computer, WarGames was an instant smash hit. The screenwriters, Walter Parkes and Lawrence Lasker, remolded an older, unproduced screenplay after meeting with futurist Peter Schwartz from the Stanford Research Institute. Schwartz introduced Parkes and Lasker to the burgeoning young subculture of computer hacking and the writers were inspired to craft the WarGames story.

Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy in the film that kicked off the hacking in Hollywood trend.

Despite a few obvious Hollywood exaggerations (I’m looking at you, talking A.I.), the film depicted a scenario of cyber warfare that was incredibly truthful to the time. The process Broderick’s character undertook to gain access to the government computer, previously an underground technique called “demon dialing,” was quickly then dubbed “war dialing” and exploded in popularity following the film’s release.

In fact, simultaneous to the film hitting cinemas a group of young hackers calling themselves the 414s were exploiting exactly the same security flaws as Broderick in the film and several months after the WarGames‘ release they were arrested.

WarGames sparked a flurry of interest and concern about computer security, but the most insane legacy of the film is how it inadvertently triggered the first US policy on cybersecurity. President Ronald Reagan became obsessed with the film after watching it at Camp David on opening day and the following week at a national security meeting he ordered his advisors to look into how close to reality the story really was.

After initially meeting Reagan’s queries with ridicule, the team did some research and returned to report that the truth was much worse than anyone imagined. This set off 15 months of work leading up to the first US cybersecurity directive, the NSDD-145, or the “National Policy on Telecommunications and Automated Information Systems Security.”

Ultimately, the directive failed as Reagan tasked the NSA with securing the country’s computers, a proposal that at the time exceeded the purview of the organization and was knocked back in Congress, but from that point on cybersecurity and hacking were embedded in the public’s consciousness.

“Override All Security”

Pretty much immediately after WarGames‘ release the idiotic representations of hacking started appearing. A mere fortnight after WarGames hit cinemas audiences were treated to one of the most insanely hilarious hacking plotlines ever to appear in a mainstream film.

The matchbook that set Richard Pryor off on a path to become the world's greatest computer...

Superman III introduced us to the character of Gus Gorman, played in suitably wacky mode by Richard Pryor. Gorman is a down-and-out, unemployed loser who decides to take a computer programming course after reading the back of a book of matches.

One thing leads to another and Gorman instantly becomes a professional computer hacker, gets a job working for an evil villain and ultimately hacks almost every computer on the planet. This is not even half the plot of what is undeniably one of the weirdest blockbusters of the 1980s and the film’s depiction of computer hacking literally amounts to Gorman typing into a computer “Override All Security.”

Super complex hacking in Superman III.

From here we started seeing an outrageous amount of computer hacking scenarios presented in generally asinine ways. Mostly these films were less about hackers specifically and more about kids getting caught up in incomprehensible computer-related conspiracies.

In Cloak And Dagger we again saw the “kid saving the world” narrative with a riff on WarGames following a video game cartridge that for some reason holds secret military information that can be unlocked by reaching a certain score. The film amusingly modeled its computer guy character on the infamous John Draper AKA Captain Crunch, a notable early computer hacker operating in the realms of what was then dubbed “phreaking.” Jumpin’ Jack Flash was another computer conspiracy narrative that gave us Whoopi Goldberg in her “hip” phase as a lowly computer analyst who suddenly started getting weird instant messages on her screen from someone claiming to be a secret agent.

And the worst computer hacker representation from the early 1980s came in Revenge Of The Nerds, which not only gave us a moronic depiction of how computers function but locked down the long running cliche of nerds using computers. At this point it seemed most Hollywood screenwriters either didn’t know or didn’t care to know how computers actually worked as evidenced by a scene where “nerd” Anthony Edwards seduces a girl by instantly creating animated pictures on her computer. With no mouse or tablet we’re not entirely sure how this could even be achieved so instantaneously, even with today’s technology.

With a few simple keystrokes you can do anything in Revenge of the Nerds.

The mystery of champagne and sentient computers

For my money the peak of 1980s “that’s not how computers work” insanity came in Electric Dreams, a film that not only has the best “setting up a computer” montage ever put to film but also potentially influenced numerous films over the coming decades, including Spike Jonze’s lovely, Her. Electric Dreams showed a strange awareness of its historical place by offering up a dedication to the memory of the first commercially produced computer in the United States, UNIVAC 1, in its closing credits.

Of course, any pretence to seriousness or accuracy got quickly lost in the film’s crazy plot, which is sparked by a simplistic bout of hacking that culminates in a computer overload. The smoking computer immediately gets doused with champagne, which somehow turns the machine sentient. Calling itself “Edgar,” the computer swiftly becomes jealous of its owner’s new lady friend resulting in one of the weirdest love triangles ever put to film – and this is only the film’s first act!

By 1985, WarGames achieved full cult status by receiving its own B-grade, straight-to-video rip-off, Prime Risk, a cheap looking thriller following some hacker hero kids who use computers to break into ATMs before inadvertently getting caught up in a giant cyber-security conspiracy. Prime Risk was inarguably terrible, but it is notable for casting a young girl as the central teenage hacker. While WarGames had Ally Sheedy stroking Matthew Broderick’s computer screen with awe, Prime Risk put the girl in charge with a male sidekick who barely knew what was going on.

The Hughes hacks

One of the more interesting notes to emerge out of 1980s hacker cinema was watching cult phenom John Hughes tap the zeitgeist by incorporating hacking into many of his early films. Weird Science arrived on the scene first with an engaging but generic take on technology and then the very next year we saw Ferris Bueller breaking into his high school computer system to change his truancy status. Matthew Broderick was certainly making a habit of hacking high school computer systems having done virtually the exact same thing with his grades in WarGames. We also saw a bizarrely impossible computer hack in Pretty In Pink depicting one of Molly Ringwald’s suitors magically sending messages – and then actual images of her face – to the computer she was working on in the school library.

The creepy way to successfully seduce Molly Ringwald in Pretty In Pink.

It didn’t matter how any of this worked. What mattered was we were seeing computers!

For the most part, these early representations of hackers concentrated on innocent kids who were playing around with computers and getting embroiled in broader nefarious schemes. Computers could do virtually anything and those that knew how to use them were young and mostly innocuous. It also was painfully clear that almost no one in Hollywood seemed to understand how computers worked or what they could actually do.

In our second installment of Hollywood and Hacking we’ll move into the 1990s, that wondrous era of virtual reality, animated computer mainframes and Steven Seagal with his Apple Newton.

Author: Amanda Walker

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