The internet. Unless you have decided for some unfathomable reason to print out every article that interests you online and read them on loose leaf paper, the fact that you are reading these words right now means that it inhabits an invaluable place in your life. It’s where we work, it’s where we play, it’s where we live, and it’s really, really hard to make a movie about it for some reason.
The issue keeps coming up in contemporary cinema, how to make a movie about online drama without making the characters seem passive, typing on screens instead of taking real world action. We’ve seen films try to make the internet thriller genre work very recently, like the ambitious Oliver Stone drama Snowden and the upcoming supernatural horror movie Friend Request. But although filmmakers are still struggling, the internet has been around for decades now and it’s as good a time as any to take stock, and decide what the best internet thriller ever is.
As always, we asked our panel of film critics – Crave’s William Bibbiani, Legion of Leia’s Witney Seibold and Collider’s Brian Formo – to each pick just one film that they think represents the best the genre has to offer, and you can read all of their justifications below. You can also tell us what you think, and whether one of them is right or whether they’re all full of malarky. And either way you can join us every single Wednesday for more all-new, highly debatable installments of The Best Movie Ever!
Brian Formo’s Pick: Pulse (2001)
Perhaps calling Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse a thriller is incorrect since it’s a careful mood piece, but there is an intense paranoia about the world wide web sucking us all into the lack. And paranoia hits a similar brain target that a thrill does. Pulse was released before the world wide web was as big as it is now and the technology advancements have made us more mobile with our tech, so the stationary paranoia in this film feels perhaps more distant than something like Black Mirror (chat rooms are literally forbidden rooms that are haunted by ghosts; computers are still connected to wires and stationary), but hey, there’s still an apocalypse here.
Pulse follows some young computer programmers who take the suicide of a friend very hard. The programmer left a floppy disk with a suicide note and the disk leads the friend group to rooms with people staring lifelessly at a glowing computer screen, shuffling with no urgency or looking vacantly and directly into their web camera. These lives are in a lonely looped repetition and when it’s discovered that these cameras all record ghosts, these souls who attached themselves to impersonal friends don’t even have anyone to haunt.
The group of friends continue their lives, experiencing some small coming of age and human moments, including little moments of romance and some light chuckles. But when troubled beings start becoming black smudges, like an exploded modem on a wall, the cities begin emitting large clouds of black smoke. The ghosts of the Internet are literally sucking the life out of strangers with as little thought of their personhood as we give friend requests from people who we hardly or don’t even know. In Pulse the oncoming apocalypse isn’t nuclear war, or climate carnage, it’s not a pile of rubble, it’s just a place where humans no longer exist. Only ghosts do.
Witney Seibold’s Pick: We Live In Public (2009)
The internet is a large and terrifying place. While it has reconstructed all of business, all of human interaction, and the entirety of human civilization, it hasn’t always carried with it positive modes. As explored in Werner Herzog’s recent documentary film Lo and Behold! Reveries of the Connected World, the ubiquity of the internet has allowed for new forms of obsession which have led to addiction, and being ostracized has become all the more intense. While some films find the notion of constant social interconnectivity to be wholly positive (no doubt Mr. William Bibbiani discussed Summer Wars in some detail), there have been clear counter-documents as to the actual awkwardness and consequences of living your life in a public forum. This was explored in detail in the under-sung 2009 documentary film We Live in Public.
Directed by Ondi Timoner (DIG!), We Live in Public traces the history of the early internet pioneer Josh Harris who, in the early days of the internet – before streaming technologies and YouTube entered the scene – was attempting to transform the internet into something resembling a universal and public TV station. To this day, you can still visit his brainchild Pseudo.com. Through the success of this site, however, Harris became obsessed with the effects the internet was having on social norms, and began conducting rather intense online social experiments, usually involving invasions of privacy; he wanted to see what would happen if we lived in public 24 hours a day. Given that’s what we do with online interaction – thanks to smartphones, it’s nearly impossible to unplug anymore – Harris’ dark experiments may have proven to be prescient.
The internet allows a great contradiction to actively operate in the human consciousness: its opportunities for anonymity allow people to express themselves freely and openly without fear of retribution. This gives voice to the all-valuable unpopular opinion, but it also allows for bullying and insult; read the comment section on a YouTube video someday. Or, better, don’t. But at the same time, it allows people to live in public, sharing their work, their face, their voice, in as large a forum as they can access, tantalizing the casual internet user with potential world fame. This contradiction is, according to We Live in Public, not entirely healthy. It’s an ego-driven world full of hate and backlash, and we seemed to have seen it coming.
William Bibbiani’s Pick: Summer Wars (2010)
Hollywood has long struggled to transform the online experience into offline drama, because it’s hard to make typing look dramatic and it’s harder still to make the ease of our interconnected lives suspenseful instead of, compared to the lives of previous generations, easier. So we get a lot of wince-inducing, scapegoat paranoid thrillers like The Net and FearDotCom that either try to present the possibilities of the internet as a Frankenstein monster allegory or try to substitute conventional thriller tropes with technojargon. And then of course there are wild fantasies like The Matrix, which use computer code to justify fantasy action sequences the way earlier films used magic or The Force.
And while there is something to be said about the paranoid internet thriller concept, and films like Enemy of the State and WarGames have their charms, I find myself gravitating instead to thrilling movies that actually have something meaningful to say about the way the internet impacts our lives, psychological nightmares like Perfect Blue (which proposed the loss of individual identity once we enter the public eye) and, even more profoundly, Summer Wars, in which an extended family in Japan becomes a microcosm of the human population as a computer virus starts wreaking havoc on our society. Services fail, satellites fall, and yet despite our obvious disparity of interests and loyalties, the possibility of interconnectivity creates a web in which we all must thrive, and in which we all fight for our principles.
It is also a film in which a badass rabbit wearing a really cool vest fights a musclebound god, and in which a teenager has to impersonate a friend’s fiancé while on vacation. It’s a film about life going on, in reality and in fantasy, and the way that the online mentality affects us and – in some ways – always has, even before we invented that technology. Summer Wars is a unique and fulfilling work of art that that makes my hairs stand on end and, no matter how many times I watch it, also makes me cry. I cry tears of joy, because this film convinces me that we won’t tear ourselves apart, that we can come together in times of crisis, and that maybe the internet is good for more than just poorly researched memes and despicable trolling.