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This is the Modem World: Movies are no longer fun now that I know everything


Each week Joshua Fruhlinger contributes This is the Modem World, a column dedicated to exploring the culture of consumer technology.

My mom loves to tell the story about the first time I ever saw Star Wars.

"He was 6 years old," she tells anyone within earshot. "Barely able to see over the seat in front of him, grasping a popcorn in one hand, soda in the other. It was the only time I ever let him drink soda," she lies to assuage any doubts about her parenting abilities.

"Then the words come up, the ones that disappear into space. And the John Williams music. Joshua's mouth drops open. He then clutched the popcorn and soda and didn't touch them for the next two hours. He was lost in another world."

Mom's hyperbolic adulation aside, I do remember how easy it was to get lost in movies -- even movies not as compelling as Star Wars, like The Black Hole, The Goonies and The Last Starfighter. Each of these movies presented universes of willing suspensions of disbelief. Things were good.

The other night, I finally got around to seeing Larry David's for-HBO movie Clear History. It begins with a clever title sequence that uses an operating system's graphical interface to list out credits. Main menu: Produced by... Slide-out menu: Starring... Cast and crew were apps in a dock. Clever indeed.

But it was tainted for me. I remember thinking how cute this was, but also thinking that if I was a cast member in one of the sub-menus and not a parent item or top-level directory, I'd feel a bit insulted. I then was bothered by the size of the icons and the nested menu structure, thinking, "That menu isn't long enough to require nested menus. They could have dropped down from the task bar. Which OS is this, anyway?"

For those who haven't seen the movie or haven't heard of it -- no spoilers ahead, I assure you -- Clear History is about an executive (played by David) at a startup electric car company who quits after deciding he doesn't like the chosen name of the car, the Howard. Turns out the car is a massive hit and David's character realizes he's made a huge mistake. Cue comedy.

The movie is funny and entertaining for sure, but as I was watching, I couldn't get past the notion that the car they used -- the one that was supposed to be the greatest thing since petroleum -- was little more than a weakly disguised golf cart. The windows were obviously Plexiglas; the doors didn't seal; and the tiny wheels clearly weren't about to spin at highway speeds for the range they said the car could achieve in the movie. Our magical reality is superior: the Tesla is a lovely car that's tightly designed and engineered.

The rub was that, while I'm no expert on electric cars, I do know that the one portrayed in the movie would never be highway safe, would wobble at freeway speeds, would never meet safety standards and, perhaps most importantly, wouldn't appeal to consumers. Maybe this is a giant joke David was passing off and I missed it, but I have a feeling this was done to meet budgetary constraints while still poking fun at Silicon Valley. Either way, it bugged me.

When I go back to watch my childhood favorites, I also find myself caught up in the scientific and technological fiction the moviemakers took and, well, it kind of sours the movies. Sure, I still love Star Wars, but when I learned that spectacular explosions don't look like that -- space has no oxygen to burn to create such amazing fireballs -- I was disappointed. I then had to wonder why a roboticist would design C-3PO as a poorly maneuvering wuss. And why doesn't someone just give R2-D2 an English-speaking chip? Speaking of which, why do they speak English in space?

Sure, I can laugh at the clearly silly departures from technological reality. The entire computer simulation sequence in Weird Science was laughably ridiculous and went perfectly with two teens donning bras on their heads. But in WarGames, one of the best movies about hacking ever, I couldn't get over the fact that this upper-middle-class kid not only had ridiculously high-end computing equipment in his bedroom, but he was using an acoustic modem of all things! No one used acoustic modems, even back then!

Today, despite the fact that technology is everywhere, moviemakers continue to dumb down tech props to the point that people like me have a hard time enjoying it. Tablets that aren't on, computers that beep and whirr at every single input, cars without rearview mirrors and televisions that aren't plugged in.

These things kill me. Being a nerd makes movies suck, and it isn't fair. It used to be that moviemakers would make some leaps here and there to keep the story flowing, or they would make learned guesses as to where technology is going, but it seems these days, they're just using the stuff we have now and -- surprisingly -- dumbing it down or using it in ways we never would.

Give us the cool assumptions again. Give us real science fiction in which your assumptions are based on real science. Give us tricorders, transporters and laser guns that go "Pew!" Give us technology that's so out of reach that it's fun again.

Disclaimer: I do not know everything, silly commenter.

Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.

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