8 Embarrassing Hollywood Tech Cliches

Lost In Space Robot

"Who ate my screws?!"

Between screwing with Nigerian spammers and trying to retire before 30, I watch an unhealthy amount of movies and TV. And much to my wife’s regret, I am unbiasedly one of those “that-will-never-happen-in-real-life” people.

It’s funny. Because while I can suspend infinite disbelief watching Bruce Willis destroy a helicopter with a shoe lace (not even his own), what get to me are the little things. Coffee cups, for example. Actors love to use overly expressive arm gestures while supposedly holding a full, boiling hot mocha latte. Now, I’m no fluids engineer, but I’m so paranoid about spills it takes me two minutes to walk to the coffee machine and 10 minutes to get back to my desk. Ladies, why wasn’t Rory Gilmore scolded horribly by her mother every week?

I can usually overlook most of these flaws, but what really get to me are tech errors. Now you’re on my turf, Hollywood. I understand that the goal is entertainment, but come on. You’re embarrassing yourself.

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1. Doing “Science”

Fact: Polio was cured with purple

Fact: Polio was cured with purple

As a young child, I was under the impression that every scientific breakthrough, from human flight to the atom bomb, was achieved by a room full of scientists in white lab coats mixing colored water in beakers. With walls covered in indistinguishable chalkboards and sparks of electricity echoing behind the sounds of bubbles, a single scientist would suddenly stand up, beaker in hand, and cry “Eureka!”. And the world had the MP3.

I’ve since grown beyond this simplistic view of science. Hollywood apparently has not.

Let me explain something. Mixing colored water no longer achieves any scientific resolution. We figured it out. Blue and yellow make green. We’re over it. And furthermore, most scientists do not maintain an ample supply of dry ice. And no scientist needs one of those electricity orbs they had at The Sharper Image in 1985.

Lava lamps, on the other hand, are providing significant breakthroughs in gene therapy. [citation needed]

2. The World Web Net

Damn dial-up

Damn dial-up

In 1996′s “Mission: Impossible”, Tom Cruise frustratingly uses “Internet” to search for a contact named “Job” — and gets zero hits. In 1995′s “The Net” Sandra Bullock hilariously orders pizza through a computer. A computer! What a sad existenc— what’s that? Oh.

Okay, so maybe Sandra and Tom get a free pass. In the 1990s, the primary purpose of the Internet was to display animated hamster GIFs.  We were years away from pizzas, jobs, and porn. But there is no excuse for modern films to display such web-ignorance.

In 2008′s “Untraceable”, Diane Lane is trying to stop a killer who posts his murders LIVE via the Internet. The more visitors to his website, the quicker his victims die. Now, if Iran can censor its entire country, and China only has 12 websites, why does this movie exist?

Side note: I heard Bad Astronomy tried this ad campaign late last year and had lackluster results.


Sudo croutch-jump!

Sudo crouch-jump!

“Jurassic Park” sent UNIX back 10 years.

As raptors descend on the control-room and the heroes brace the door, tween hacker Lex spins around into an office chair to access what is certainly the world’s worst user interface: a 1 fps, 3D rendered file-system. “UNIX”.

Thankfully, she apparently “knows this” and flies around looking for the door locks. Meanwhile, Timmy does some jumping jacks instead of helping the grownups reach their big ass raptor riffle. $2 worth of quarters later, Lex defeats the Shell Wizard to obtain the red key and closes the raptor airlock. Damn UNIX.

Worse than this are Firehose UIs that display every piece of information available in rapid submission. Every secret underground White House staff meeting has some situation-status program running with useless, never-ending streams of numbers. Don’t we perform data analysis? Does the president really need a binary representation of Osama Bin Laden’s iPod playlist?

Although this does make me wonder how many streaming numbers the government has on me. *tinfoil hat*

4. Hidden Earpieces

Agent Johnson


Agent Johnson, come in.

You do not need to touch your hidden earpiece.

I repeat. Remove your finger from your ear. You are making it eye-pockingly obvious that you are an undercover agent.

The earpiece contains both your speaker and your microphone. Stop that. It sounds like you are talking through a windy garbage bag inside of a freezer.

That’s right. We no longer have your microphone in your suit cuff. Stop talking into your sleeve.

No, it’s not on the inside of your lapel either. Just speak normally. Jesus.

5. Hacking

Jeff Goldblum: the best hacker in the galaxy

Jeff Goldblum gave me a cold.

Hacking has become so common on film and TV that to the public’s knowledge, hacking is as simple as typing “hack FBI” into a command line.

Just a minute. Yep. Doesn’t work.

Jack Bauer: Chloe! I’m at the terrorist warehouse. Send me the building schematic!

Chloe O’Brien: I’ve got it right here Jack! But I need more bandwidth! I’m going to hack into the FBI’s servers to open another socket.

Jack: Chloe?

Chloe: It’s not working! I’m going to scowl some more and hack them even harder!

Jack: Just email it to me Chloe!

Chloe: <scowl>

Hacking is actually a deeply involved process and takes some ingenuity and skill. You can’t just hack a government satellite any time you want. Right?

6. Beeps

Computer Beeps

It means it's working

Computers do not make a high-pitched stream of beeps every time they do something. Why do my ears bleed every time CSI runs a fingerprint? Why does my neighbor’s dog howl every time Jason Bourne pulls up an FBI photo?

Can you imagine if this was how everyday computers behaved? Every mouse movement, every mouse click, every loaded image? No wonder our government agents defect to Russia.

Now in reality, there is probably a small company is LA whose soul business is to create onscreen UIs for movies and TV. And I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt here. On every project, they are probably approached by the producer who, network notes in hand, requests that they “make it sound a little more ‘computery‘?”

Folks, this is probably an older gentleman who purchased a $2300 Apple laptop that he only uses to check email. He is also the reason Arrested Development and Firefly are canceled.

7. Hot-Wiring

I should paint all my wires black.

Never cross the red and orange wires.

As far as I can tell, to hot-wire my Civic I need only to expose the wires beneath my steering wheel, cut the red one, and tap the two ends together a few times. Or I might simply jam a screw-driver into the ignition and turn.

This is clearly a job for the Mythbusters, however I’m willing to put my nerd-license on the line and call these busted.

How about some more clever auto thefts? Maybe throw a treadmill under the tire and pop the clutch? Or use a defibrillator on the dash? We’re at least getting into a “crazy enough to work” category.

8. Image Enhancement

Why so blurry?

Why so blurry?

David Caruso stands in the Circle K parking lot. 3 AM.

He is wrapped in a sea of flashing red and blue lights. As police officers tape off the crime-scene, Caruso causally enters the market. He is greeted with the expected ‘ding’ of the automatic door.

Weary of chips and Slim-Jims strewn across the floor, he walks over to a bloodied victim crammed inside a nacho machine. Crouched, he glances up to the see that the store’s security camera has been destroyed.

He steps back outside into the cold Miami night and puts on his sunglasses for some reason. As he wipes nacho residue from his hand, he surveys the scene. Across the street, something catches his attention.

Three-hundred feet from the crime-scene, an ATM points in the direction of the parking lot. As Caruso crosses the street, a low drum of a piano chord becomes increasingly louder. He looks into the ATM’s security camera. Behind the black-and-white, 1 megapixel grain, Caruso smirks with his hands on his hips. The chord is silenced.


<The Who>
</The Who>

Fast forward 42 minutes. Caruso has used the ATM camera to spot the suspect’s car and is able to enhance a single pixel on the gas cap into a full thumbprint. The following week, he uses a cellphone image of a blood-stain to pull DNA.

Can we stop this, please? Yes, we have image enhancing algorithms. No, they aren’t that good.

Anything I missed? Comment any tech clichés that you’d like to see abolished.

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Comments (10) Trackbacks (2)
  1. Peter
    12:44 PM on July 29th, 2009

    How about getting DNA lab results back in 5 minutes?

  2. Rob H
    12:53 PM on July 29th, 2009

    The Jurassic Park UI is actually FSN (File System Navigator), a real IRIX 3D interface: http://www.siliconbunny.com/fsn-the-irix-3d-file-system-tool-from-jurassic-park/

  3. Mark
    3:17 PM on July 29th, 2009

    Hacking/programming/any activity that requires typing on a computer.

    In movies, this involves attacking the keyboard and typing at something like 200 wpm, never pressing backspace, and often not needing the space bar or enter keys.

    In RL programming, a good deal of time is spent thinking how to solve the problem and fixing typos. If your typing speed is the limit of how fast you can program, then either your variable names are way too long, or you’re using a really bad language.

  4. smg45acp
    5:16 AM on August 5th, 2009

    My wife tells me I ruin too many movies by being “too logical”.
    One thing that drives me crazy is when they shrink a 200 pound man to an inch high and suddenly me weights less than a pound.
    It’s the law! Matter can not be created or destroyed.
    That inch high man will still weigh 200 pounds! He will not fly on the back of a bumble bee now.

  5. Meh
    6:10 AM on August 5th, 2009

    I’d like to see all the erronious elevator incidents done away with. Run away elevators? Brakes under the cars that shoot sparks and lift and reapply?

    Doesn’t happen that way. Elevators don’t just drop, unless its before the safety elevator that Elisha Otis demonstrated at the Crystal Palace.

    It raises fear of elevators while being total fiction.

  6. anon
    11:47 AM on October 20th, 2010
  7. Valerie Chennault
    4:20 AM on October 21st, 2010

    great post

  8. Artur
    6:01 AM on September 1st, 2011

    A great video recap of #8 Image Enhancement: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vxq9yj2pVWk

  9. Markus
    5:27 AM on January 6th, 2012

    Never say never. Identifying DNA with any mobile phone could be possible sooner than one would assume. Check out this article about using mobile phone’s touchscreen to identify illnesses.


  10. Dan
    12:23 PM on June 12th, 2012

    Laser printers that make dot-matrix sounds when printing. Take it back for a warrantee replacement! Also, a few years on the soap opera “Day of Our Lives,” a character’s memory had been erased, but not before they were backed up to a CD-ROM.

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