Editor’s Notes: Elysium and Jobs are now open in wide theatrical release.
The biggest challenge in compiling this list proved to be clarifying, for my purposes, what exactly I was ranking. The pool of movies featuring either A) a narrative about technology or B) a film littered with tech is staggering. Is it about technology or the environment? And so on. After many, many adjustments, I stuck to films whose narratives were inseparable from the technology they featured. From there, as is always the case, it’s a matter of give and take.
With only ten spots, numerous movies have huddled around that most feared table in the high school cafeteria. A few of them, septic with the rage of my snubbing, have blasted me with emails, my favorite of which from The Truman Show, reading: “Your mom doesn’t even love you. She’s not your mom. Fucker.” Oh well. Slightly classier losers: Back to the Future, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Fly, Ghost in the Shell, The Iron Giant, The (first) Matrix, The Lives of Others, Primer, Terminator (I guess one and two), and We Live in Public. If this list were more finitely about the gadgetry and design onscreen, unquestionably Minority Report and Dark City would’ve made the cut. As movies, each has fairly anchorsome issues. Onward already!
10. Akira (1988), Katshutiro Ohtomo
One of the two hardest decisions with this list: Akira or Ghost in the Shell. Ghost in the Shell more overtly cautions. However, Akira, adapted from over 2,000 pages of epic manga, has proven the more influential film. Within its grimly kinetic, dystopic universe and strangely synchronic cityscape, Ohtomo illustrates for us the danger potential-expanding, invasive technology can impose on our humanity.
9. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), Steven Spielberg (a.k.a. Stanley Kubrick)
Uncanny in two regards: the execution of Haley Joel Osment’s character, and the melding of Spielberg’s and Kubrick’s disparate voices into a single, unsettling vision. Wanting David, Osment’s character, to be played by an actual animatron, Kubrick waited decades to produce the film. It’s plenty creepy as is. Though the final product is uneven—particularly the ending—it’s absolutely riddled with equal parts horror and soul that, when on point, trump the lesser moments.
8. Blade Runner (1982), Ridley Scott
The prototypical mindbender, Scott’s sci-fi classic explicitly distorted what it means to be human. How do we identify? What defines it? Here we have a noir conceived of on the ground-level. The dense, grungy city bustles. These rogue androids—replicants—have displayed surprising agency by hijacking a ship, seeking out their creator. They’ve acted unpredictably. What can we make of a willfully unpredictable machine? As Deckard tracks them, identities dissolve and we’re left without a single monster or a single hero. What to call them, then?
7. The Social Network (2010), David Fincher
Can the film be underrated? The Best Picture should’ve-been is a slick, cocky, brilliant thing from front to back. Aaron Sorkin’s script seers and pops, David Fincher’s direction broods and boils, Jesse Eisenberg delivers a performance he likely can’t top. It’s a movie about us, about the 20-something modern Kane whose sarcasm, atypical ambition, and foresight accompany an ascent that could progress and end no other way. We imagine we can be that. The irony? The film in a way taunts us. Good luck, it says. And we love it for it.
6. The Conversation (1974), Francis Ford Coppola
Has any filmmaker, ever, had a better decade than Coppola in the ‘70s? The Godfather I & II, Apocalypse Now, and this, his first Cannes winner, that somehow gets lost in the shuffle. A potent depiction of the façade of privacy in the technological age, The Conversation proved far and away Coppola’s most prescient work. Where would today’s public discourse be if more people watched this film—or also, for that matter, the powerfully melodramatic German iteration, The Lives of Others?
5. WALL-E (2008), Andrew Stanton
The second hardest decision for this list: WALL-E or The Iron Giant. Both films are literally about technology-the-character. After settling on WALL-E, it continued to climb. Easily the most heartfelt movie on the list, Pixar did something incredible with this post-apocalyptic family film: it set out with two, and only two, characters who both spoke nothing but various pronunciations of their names, forgoing any real dialogue for well over half the film, and made arguably their most endearing, simplistically rich film to date. That they managed to craft a deft narrative of ecological respect and accountability is the cherry to Stanton and crew’s brilliance here.
4. Brazil (1985), Terry Gilliam
Strange, hilarious, bothersome, the Monty Python man’s retro-dystopic film fills the perfectly zany space bypassed by most movies of the ilk. It’s a retort to the maxim that technology simplifies by way of intricacy. Visually striking, we see temptations gratified and fantasies abound, but nowhere satisfaction or clarity. The world has become convoluted. Gilliam provides an odd reality check, and a reminder of the thread by which we sometimes hang.
3. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Stanley Kubrick
There’s a host of Cold War era, bomb-fearing doomsday movies out there. Strangelove renders most about as potent as POTUS Merkin Muffley. Kubrick’s scathing romp mauls the men who have and who continue to obliviously pull the strings of society’s nuclear anxiety, while upholding—almost proclaiming—those very fears. Kubrick was famously weary and fascinated by technology. Some read the film as Kubrick’s opus against modern destruction, others read it as an ironic rejection of the fear of modern destruction. The beauty is it’s very much both. It’s a masterpiece of black comedy, and a perfectly constructed, deceptively meditative sketch about civilization, its tech, and their paired trappings. Almost made it to first runner-up.
2. Metropolis (1927), Fritz Lang
The father of modern cinema’s science fiction (Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon the spiritual grandfather), Fritz Lang’s masterwork remains as breathtaking and relevant today as it surely must have 86 years ago. The themes of class resonate, but viewing after viewing the film elevates higher and higher, grasping the human condition, searching for the compassion within it. It’s the class of old school special effects, its visuals hardly dated yet. Oh the music. If ever you have the chance to see the film screened with any sort of accompaniment (Roger Ebert once described the creeping transcendence of a viewing scored by a washboard-type ensemble), do not pass up the opportunity.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Stanley Kubrick
No other film could top this list. Sorry to be anticlimactic. Simply: One of the ten greatest, most ambitious and influential films ever made. Every single one of the previous films touches on the human condition in some way, and the effects of technology on it. 2001 chronicles it—all of it. Perhaps most boldly: it treats tech not as an additive to or luxury of humanity, but a necessity. That bone an appendage, just like an arm, a leg, a spacecraft. What happens when that appendage develops consciousness? We became sentient, why not it? Can there still be symbiosis? What’s to come? These are profound mysteries. A nearsighted, foolhardy artist believes they can uncork or speculate the answers. The master, the genius knows only to express possibility as such; potential, forward motion, infinity. It’s not about where we go. It’s that we go and that we know we are going there. No one in the history of movies clutched to this more than Stanley Kubrick.