Modems in the Movies: The Early Years

In 1980s movies, modems had the power to change high school grades, wreck laboratories, and even spark global nuclear conflict. Here are some classic and silly modem movie moments from a time before the technology caught on.

Want to Connect and Start World War III?

During the 1980s, a clutch of Hollywood movies incorporated some of the first commercially available computer modems. Use of the new devices usually had some far-fetched implications, such as pushing the United States to the brink of thermonuclear war when an online game turned dangerous. But modems in the movies went way beyond War Games. Read on to relive cinematic modem magic.

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Brainstorm (1983)

In this scene from the 1983 thriller Brainstorm, researcher Michael Brace (played by Christopher Walken) dials in to a mainframe at a factory that makes computer parts, and directs its robots to go berserk, destroying the lab. Meanwhile, his estranged wife and fellow researcher uses another line to hack in to the security systems at the factory and reprogram them to lock the labs and thwart the guards inside. Pretty sophisticated for 1983, no?

More Brainstorm (1983)

Later in Brainstorm, Brace pairs an ordinary pay phone with his portable acoustic coupler and dials in to corporate servers to run a program called "Brainstorm." In this movie, a brainstorm is a highly dangerous, full-sensory recording of someone's death. The person who "listens" to the recording (via special headgear) sees and feels the pain of dying, and everything that happens afterward. The military goons in the movie want to use "Brainstorm" as a mental torture tool.

War Games (1983)

In the iconic geek movie War Games, a young Matthew Broderick plays David Lightman, a hacker who uses his modem to discover a backdoor into a classified defense network. Lightman soon realizes that the military supercomputer he has infiltrated, which is programmed to predict possible outcomes of nuclear war, has confused reality with gameplay and that the simulation he has started could start World War III. Disaster is ultimately averted, and Broderick lives on to dial up further modem hijinks in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

Electric Dreams (1984)

In this campy '80s techsploitation flick, young architect Miles buys a souped-up computer he knows nothing about. After a series of unfortunate events--including spilling champagne on the hardware--the computer gains self-awareness. Edgar, the PC, eventually develops human emotions, and puts its modem to use as it cancels its owner's credit cards and vies for the affections of his girlfriend.

Real Genius (1985)

The early Val Kilmer vehicle Real Genius features a comical climactic sequence in which supernerd Chris Knight (Kilmer) brute-forces his way into the military's defense network to stop the government from using his grad-school laser project as a deadly weapon. Which forces us to ask: What exactly did he think they would do with it? Make popcorn?

Weird Science (1985)

While trying to create the perfect girlfriend from a combination of a Barbie doll and a computer, teen geeks Gary Wallace (Anthony Michael Hall) and Wyatt Donnelly (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) decide to hack in to the government network (which, if earlier '80s flicks are any indication, is very easy to do) to get more power. We're not convinced that the writers knew how modems worked.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

In yet another great geeky appearance from teen star Matthew Broderick, the movie's namesake uses the computer that his parents bought him to hack in to his school's network and change his attendance record before spending the day on the town with his love interest.

The Net (1995)

By the mid 1990s, the Internet had become a staple of tech-savvvy American life. The Net, featuring Sandra Bullock as Angela Bennett, coupled fear of Big Brother and the rise of the Internet. While on vacation, Angela stumbles into a web of corporate espionage, and the Internet soon becomes her worst enemy.