The role of computers in the film: human, mean, infallible


The story of computers that play an important role in films begins with analog computers. Fritz Lang showed pioneers in the form of mechanical-industrial machines on which workers in “Metropolis” moved long levers, turned valve wheels and stared at pointer instruments. Two years later, such a machine in Lang’s “Woman in the Moon” even controlled a spacecraft called “Friede”.

In 1951, the science fiction cartoon “When Worlds Collide” was released, in which the earth is destroyed when it collides with another planet. 50 people can flee and fly with a rocket to the small planet Zyra, which previously scraped past the earth by a hairpin. There they are building a new civilization. The trajectory and the impending catastrophe were calculated by differential analyzers, which click happily.

Warner Bros. Pictures Germany

Video telephony was already predicted by Fritz Lang in Metropolis.

(Image: Warner Bros. Pictures Germany)

In the 1956 science fiction film “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” (German: Flying Saucers Attack) machines from General Electric rattle to decode the radio messages sent by the saucer occupants – so far, so plausible. The extraterrestrial instructions were then output via the “Electrowriter” from the Victor company, with which signatures were transferred in real life.

In the 1957 film “The Invisible Boy” (German: SOS spaceship), a supercomputer is built that first makes the computer scientist’s son so super smart that he can build a robot. Later the supercomputer makes the boy invisible. The computer asks the scientist to hand over a code that enables him to walk. Behind this is the plan to usurp world domination.

When the father refuses, the computer orders the robot to kill the son. However, the two of them went to the moon with a rocket and have since become friends. They turn around and destroy the computer. Numerous films of this kind, which are somewhere between science fiction, slapstick and childish enthusiasm for technology, were made well into the 1960s.

On a strictly scientifically sound basis, the cinematic examination of computers only begins with what is probably the most famous computer in film history, the HAL 9000 (see the picture above). This HAL is a production number 3 supercomputer that went live on January 12, 1997 at the Supercomputing Center in Urbana, Illinois. In 2001 he is on board a spaceship on a space odyssey and sets out to murder the entire crew because he, the absolutely error-free computer, had made a mistake: HAL 9000 diagnosed a malfunction of the AE35 device. Both the astronaut on duty Frank Poole and HAL’s counterpart, a twin computer on Earth, examine AE35 and find out that the device is working properly. Poole is promptly killed by HAL 9000.

The idea of ​​an infallible computer that perishes in itself was developed by the director Stanley Kubrick and the writer Artur C. Clarke after Clarke had heard a lecture at the US space agency NASA about the absolutely fault-tolerant computer systems of the future. HAL 9000 was a fictional computer with very human features: when the astronaut Dave Bowman removed the memory banks from HAL bit by bit, he protested and slowly lost consciousness and speech until he finally sang a nursery rhyme. Clarke contributed his observations on a brain operation he’d been following.

When Stanley Kubrick was filming “2001 – A Space Odyssey” in Great Britain in 1967, the Soviet Air Force attaché visited the film studio and carefully looked at the labeled spaceship consoles, the computer tablets used by the astronauts (!) And only briefly remarked: “It will You know that they all have to be labeled in Russian. ” We are now in the middle of the Cold War, in which space travel and computers played an important role, as can be seen in the first big films with real computers.

The role of computers in film


This article comes from c’t-RETRO. In the special edition of the c’t we take a look back at the first IBM PCs and shed light on the triumphant advance of Windows. You will find practice, tests and stories about classic technology. We remember Karl Klammer, introduce a modern IBM XT replica for vintage computing and explain how you can rescue data from scratched CDs and old hard drives. c’t RETRO is now in Heise shop and available at the well-stocked magazine kiosk.