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Sunday 15 December 2019

How Hollywood logged on to the internet

The dotcom generation is placed under the microscope in David Fincher's new film, and the results are not flattering. In The Social Network, which opened here yesterday, Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark Zuckerberg, the real-life Harvard geek who became a multi-billionaire overnight after inventing a modest little social internet site called Facebook.

As Fincher's film makes clear, however, there's always been some dispute as to exactly what Zuckerberg did and didn't invent. And while screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has been keen to point out the movie is a story rather than a slavishly faithful account of Facebook's founding, it is true that the world and its mother began suing Zuckerberg once he made it big.

Mark Zuckerberg was only 19 in 2004 when he launched 'The Facebook', as it was originally known, with the help of fellow college hackers. Loosely based on existing university chat sites, Facebook included photos, brief biogs, relationship status and other personal details about subscribers.

As we now know it took off like wild fire, and at the last count there were more than 500 million users around the world. However, within six days of Facebook's launch Zuckerberg was accused of intellectual property theft by three Harvard seniors who claimed he'd nicked their idea.

A lengthy court case and handsome settlement ensued, but even more damning was the fact that Zuckerberg's best friend and co-Facebook founder Eduardo Saverin sued him for more than a billion -- and won.

Fincher's film trades on the implicit irony that the man who created the world's largest social network would appear to have the social skills of a desert hermit. It's one of the year's best movies, but it's also one of the best movies ever about the internet, a subject that has been shabbily treated by Hollywood down the years.

Of course there have been some exceptions, but overall, film-makers have struggled to transform the potentially fruitful subject into anything remotely instructive or entertaining.

Instead they've tended to use it as a handy framework for moronic thrillers, and a plot device in rom-coms.

The internet was in its infancy when Sandra Bullock was cast in Irwin Winkler's thoroughly daft 1995 thriller The Net. Showing a very poor grasp of the new technology, the film played on an older generation's fears about what horrors an information superhighway might lead to. Bullock played a comely but reclusive systems analyst who is landed in a world of trouble when a friend sends her a floppy disk (remember them?) with a hidden programme that provides access to all sorts of covert government computers.

The makers traded shamelessly on the young Bullock's sex appeal, but the film was a mess that left those looking for some insight into what exactly the internet was even more confused than they were to begin with.

By 1998, email was on its way to becoming the dominant new force, but it deserved a better movie than Nora Ephron's mawkish and irredeemably sloppy You've Got Mail.

A souped-up remake of the 1941 comedy The Shop Around the Corner, it starred Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as rival bookstore owners who develop an increasingly frisky online relationship without knowing who each other is.

The film was a modest box office success, and AOL must have been very happy with the amount of prominence its email package was given, but You've Got Mail has dated extremely badly, and had surprisingly little to say about this new communication stream.

As the new millennium dawned, the internet became a default plot device in thrillers and horror films, with screen psychopaths flocking to the new technology as a means of broadcasting the grisly results of their latest outrage. But for all the flashy new technology, most internet thrillers trod wearily familiar ground.

The 2002 thriller Swimfan, for instance, was essentially Fatal Attraction for slow learners. Jesse Bradford starred as a top high-school swimmer whose perfect little life is unsettled when he acquires an online admirer. Erika Christensen played the cyber-stalker, who succeeded in seducing Ben and then began sending naked pictures of herself to his email address.

Swimfan was pretty shoddy, but seemed almost classy next to FearDotCom (2002). A shameless rip-off of the Japanese horror classic The Ring, its title referred to a website so disturbing that people who visit it will die screaming within 48 hours. Instead, punters ran screaming from the cinemas.

Slightly more original but equally unpleasant was the 2008 Diane Lane thriller Untraceable. In it, a lunatic broadcast live webcasts of victims who die quicker and more horribly depending on the number of people who visit the site. The film was gory and depressing, but not especially good.

All in all, most of the movies that use the internet as a central theme or plot thickener are pretty forgettable, but there are a few honourable exceptions.

There's a popular theory that the Wachowski brothers' 1999 sci-fi hit The Matrix is partly inspired by the internet, and fears of what the labyrinthine global network might become. It's very much worst-case scenario, with sentient machines having colonised mankind and hooked them up to a virtual world that convinces them they're living normal lives. Things got a bit out of hand in the sequels, but the first film was certainly a thought-provoking take on the perils of technology.

Ian Softley's Hackers (1995) is an interesting early internet film. Its effects look a little dated now but at least it bothers to take the science seriously, and Jonny Lee Miller and a young Angelina Jolie are pretty good as two high-school computer freaks involved in a hacking duel.

In Miranda July's brilliant 2005 Me and You and Everyone We Know, the internet's capacity for throwing together total strangers was cleverly explored. When a boy and his 14-year-old brother share an online chat, it is misinterpreted by a woman who asks to meet the older sibling.

One of the best films of all about the internet and new technology was the 2001 documentary, Startup.com, which followed the rise and fall of an internet venture. Founded in 1998 at the height of the original dotcom bubble, GovWorks.com was a financial management site that burned through some $60m in venture capital before going belly up in 2000.

In many ways The Social Network covers similar territory to Startup.com, but far more impressively and effectively because it's a drama, not a documentary.

Too close for comfort, perhaps. Mark Zuckerberg is reportedly not over the moon about his portrayal in the film, and has been quoted as saying: "I just wish nobody had made a movie about me while I was still alive."

Cynics have even accused him of trying to repair his public image by suddenly donating $100m to his native New Jersey's school system. And to be fair it may be just a coincidence that Zuckerberg made this grand gesture a week before the film opened.

The Social Network opened nationwide yesterday. pwhitington@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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