Now all the heroes have hard drives

Suddenly, booting up is very big at the box office. But Hollywood's attempt to get wired has had comic consequences
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Indy Lifestyle Online
You have to laugh - or else be very worried about standards in international security - if, as the scriptwriters of Mission Impossible imply, US Secret Service agents are tapping into Usenet newsgroups to send messages to each other. The general standard of communication on bulletin boards is rarely that instrumental in world affairs. But, there again, Hollywood has never got the hang of portraying technology, and there is a catalogue of implausible plot twists containing computers in this year's blockbusters.

The main problem with Hollywood getting wired is that computers are not intrinsically good actors (although in stroppy moments they do refuse to perform, so they have something in common with the thespian world). They just don't light well, either, and plain grey boxes are about as enticing a prop as a light stand.

But, the Hollywood reasoning must have run, "They are a huge part of life today and we must feature them as they enable us to exchange information and bons mots with people all over the shrinking world."

And not just with people, either. In Independence Day, Jeff Goldblum's character manages to annihilate aliens with his PowerBook after intercepting the mothership's signal. I'd love to know who his Apple dealer is. I'd like to have a PowerBook that never crashes and apparently needs no recharging. But, there again, someone who supposedly spent eight years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and now works for a cable television company must have their finger on the pulse.

Hollywood has never been strong on irony. The whole cinema audience groaned when Goldblum opened up his PowerBook and searched through a CD-Rom to find his ex-wife's mobile phone number. Not only was her number listed (yeah, right, I'm sure a press attache to the US president is in the phone book), but it took longer to search through the database than to call directory inquiries.

But we do have Independence Day to thank for telling us there are definitely aliens out there (and supporting open software systems, which is useful to know). The US military withdrew its support when it found out that the film contained references to Area 51, a highly secret location where the Defense Department tracks UFOs.

Using high technology to illustrate society's fears is nothing new. Remember Hal 9000, the supercomputer with a mind of its own in Stanley Kubrick's 2001, A Space Odyssey?

But in Hollywood these days, it isn't so much use of hi-tech as misuse of it to advance a shaky storyline.

Hackers, for example, was nothing more than the baby-boomers' fear of unruly teenagers taking over the playing field. Disclosure's use of VR was about upstart women (virtually) taking over the boardroom. It made for a heightened sense of drama, but the sight of Demi Moore having an out-of-body experience and rifling through company files one by one instead of pressing the "find" and "delete" keys was excruciating.

In Mission Impossible, the technological implausibility reached new heights. Tom Cruise (aka superspy Ethan Hunt), who had a PowerBook without the famous Apple interface, managed to receive someone else's email and didn't even bother to avoid detection by renaming a highly confidential FBI file after downloading it to disk - disk that actually morphed from a standard 3.5-inch diskette into an MD (MiniDisk) when the baddie, Max (played by Vanessa Redgrave), was apprehended by the authorities with the "mutatable" hardware in her possession. This happens after a frenzied argument about whether Max's henchman had checked the batteries as the train approached the tunnel where the modem connection would (correctly) be severed.

Moments worrying about batteries are not what audiences pay to see in blockbuster adventure movies. Spies are meant to carry pens that squirt poison, to wear sunglasses that contain tiny cameras, and to have shoot- outs. Not flip open their portables and check their email. Geek talk is in its very nature dull and riddled with self-reflexive code. Lines in Mission Impossible such as, "You realise you're an obsolete piece of hardware not worth upgrading when you have a lousy marriage and only $62,000 a year," does not explain a mid-life crisis with any great poetry.

The computer geek as modern cinematic hero is seeing Hollywood take a downturn. Audiences want to see the lead actors swanning off into the sunset with the love interest after dispatching another villain, not shuffling around in dirty jeans and grabbing a Big Mac on the way home to crack some code.

Pity Keanu Reeves. As one of the most bankable stars today, he has to get his head around another computer-obsessed script after the disappointing Johnny Mnemonic. In Chain Reaction, out soon, he plays a computer whizz kid chemist. At least Tom Cruise got to play a spy.