The end of the year is always a good time for reflection: What have you learned? Where do you want to go? What do you hope to do differently?
It’s also a good time for binge-watching.
To help you think deep thoughts about tech’s most pressing issues from the comfort of your couch, Protocol has rounded up the tech-industry movies you have to see. From the classics to new releases, these movies will remind you of industry visionaries, warn you of tech’s pitfalls and give you a glimpse of what lies ahead.
Wondering what the metaverse will bring? Check out 'The Matrix Resurrections' (2021).
What’s it about? "The Matrix" should need no introduction, but for those of you who have somehow managed to miss this genre-defining film, it's a franchise about artificially-intelligent machines that have enslaved humanity inside a simulated reality. The film focuses on computer programmer Neo as he attempts to free humanity after being awakened to reality by taking a red pill from a man named Morpheus. In the latest film, Neo once again takes the red pill after a period of inactivity and reenters the Matrix.
Why should I watch? The film is the fourth (and allegedly final) installment in the series, which means we have to watch it. There’s also the mind-bending, action-packed visual spectacle appeal. And Keanu Reeves — enough said.
Watch it on HBO Max or in theaters.
Worried about privacy? Watch 'The Circle' (2017).
What’s it about? "The Circle" is about a call-center intern named Mae who works at a social media company named, you guessed it: The Circle. The company slowly starts rolling out new features, placing tiny cameras everywhere so they can watch people and proposing that every citizen have a Circle account before they can vote. Circle’s CEO quite literally believes that “knowing everything is better,” and as time goes on, it seems like Mae does too. She starts wearing a camera 24 hours a day and drinking the Kool-Aid of exchanging privacy for safety.
Why should I watch? The film is a chilling portrayal of what our world could look like (or already does?) in the not-so-distant future. One of the software developers in the film says it best: “I did not create this; this is not what I had in mind.” It’s a stark reminder of how tech can go beyond the point of no return if we’re not careful. (If books are more your speed, check out its namesake by Dave Eggers.)
Rent it on Apple TV or Amazon Video.
Fearful of mass surveillance? Try 'Snowden' (2016).
What’s it about? "Snowden" is a dramatized re-telling of Edward Snowden’s leak of classified NSA information. It follows Snowden as he joins the NSA and learns that the government is monitoring every phone in the U.S. — the “entire kingdom,” as his colleague puts it. Once an army-hopeful looking to faithfully serve his country, Snowden begins to grow increasingly disillusioned. “Most Americans don’t want freedom, they want security,” the CIA deputy director tells him. “They don’t even know they’ve made that bargain,” Snowden counters. The film ends with Snowden smuggling data on a microSD card via a Rubik’s cube to Hong Kong, where he relays the information to a documentarian and journalist. The rest, as we know, is history.
Why should I watch? Snowden’s revelations created a fresh conversation in the U.S. about how the government uses technology against its own citizens — a conversation that very much continues today.
Rent it on Apple TV or Amazon Prime Video.
Interested in startup founders? Here are two films about Steve Jobs.
'Steve Jobs' (2015)
What’s it about? The title is pretty self-explanatory, but the film follows Steve Jobs via product announcements, from the Apple Macintosh 128K to the iMac more than a decade later. The film also weaves in Jobs’ estranged relationship with his daughter, his conflicts with Steve Wozniak and his generally mercurial and callous disposition.
Why should I watch? The film almost seems to center on the debate of whether Jobs is an artist or not. There’s a running line from Jobs that “computers are paintings,” and he quite literally believes the NeXT computer “could be on display at the Guggenheim.” Rife with Aaron Sorkin’s characteristic whip-smart dialogue, it paints Jobs as an aesthete with all the character flaws of a true artist.
Watch it on Netflix.
What’s it about? Yes, there were two Steve Jobs films, but we promise they’re different. This film delves much more into Jobs’ early days, when he walked around barefoot as a drop-out at Reed College, learned calligraphy and took LSD with his then-girlfriend. It chronicles his sales, design and marketing prowess as he leads Apple from a rag-tag group of engineers in a garage to introducing the first iPod.
Why should I watch? The film is somewhat hagiographic, and seems to buy into the sentiment that founders are like gods or visionaries. At a time when even some founders are questioning tech founder worship, it’s an area that’s ripe for examination. Jobs is an interesting portrayal of the man as a hippie-like figure who rebels against the system and goes so far as to name his company Apple, because the grandiosity of his vision can only be compared to the “fruit of creation.”
Watch it on Starz.
Want to learn more about encryption? Try 'The Imitation Game' (2014).
What’s it about? The Imitation Game is about a gay British mathematician, Alan Turing, who is considered to have laid the foundation for modern computing and artificial intelligence. In the film, Turing races to develop a machine that can decrypt the German Enigma machine, which the Nazis used to send messages during World War II. The film takes a tragic turn when, after successfully deploying the machine, Turing is arrested and subjected to chemical castration for being gay in a time when that was deemed a crime.
Why should I watch? The film makes mathematics and cryptography surprisingly compelling against the backdrop of war. It also sheds light on the wrongs committed against a computer pioneer who never received due recognition in his lifetime.
Watch it on Amazon Prime Video or Vudu.
Pondering Facebook’s dominance? Check out 'The Social Network' (2010).
What’s it about? "The Social Network" is about the founding of Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg’s ensuing legal battles with the Winklevoss twins and Divya Narendra, who claim Zuckerberg stole their idea. In the film, as in life, the Winklevoss twins and Divya sue Zuckerberg for theft of intellectual property, while Zuckerberg’s co-founder Eduardo Saverin attempts to push investor Sean Parker out of the company. Saverin winds up getting pushed out of the company himself.
Why should I watch? The film made waves when it first came out, with Zuckerberg and others arguing it was inaccurate (except for the wardrobe). Of course, all this just made everyone want to watch it more. The Academy Award-winning film is a fascinating look into Facebook in its infancy, and the socially awkward, intense, somewhat callous Zuckerberg who would go on to build a global empire.
Watch it on Hulu or Amazon Prime Video.
Does this need an explanation? Watch 'Antitrust' (2001).
What’s it about? "Antitrust" is about Stanford grad and programer Milo Hoffman, who is recruited by the CEO of software development company NURV (a fictionalized version of Microsoft). NURV is building a network of satellites to develop a global communications system called Synapse that is intended to “fuel business for the next 30 years,” and “change the world.” But when Hoffman’s best friend is killed, he discovers that NURV is stealing code from programmers and then killing them.
Why should I watch? The film is partially a dramatization of Microsoft’s antitrust trial in the late '90s, which unearthed its efforts to kill off other companies’ software offerings (sometimes using colorful language). It’s also an interesting take on the power of monopolistic corporations and a treatise on the lengths tech giants will go to in order to dominate and expand.
Watch it on Tubi.
Concerned about artificial intelligence? Try 'Ex Machina' (2014).
What’s it about? "Ex Machina" is about a programmer named Caleb who administers the Turing test to an artificially intelligent humanoid called Ava. The Turing test, devised by namesake Alan Turing (See? Watch "The Imitation Game."), is an exercise where an interrogator tries to determine whether a machine has human-like intelligence. If the interrogator can’t tell the difference between a machine and a human, then the machine has passed the Turing test. In the film, as Caleb is conducting the Turing test he begins to develop feelings for Ava, and colludes with the humanoid to take down her creator. Ava ultimately escapes, having manipulated Caleb: in effect, passing the Turing test.
Why should I watch? The film is an extension of Alan Turing’s famous question: Can machines think? It’s also an intriguing and visceral thought experiment about the limits of artificial intelligence. The film is admittedly jarring and slightly unsettling, but it also has a gripping narrative worth watching.
Watch it on Hulu or Amazon Prime Video.
Looking for the quintessential tech film? It’s got to be 'Hackers' (1995).
What’s it about? A group of high school hackers with some pretty sweet names like Zero Cool, The Phantom Phreak and Acid Burn, inadvertently get involved in corporate extortion. The hackers break into a supercomputer called the Gibson, which is owned by a mineral corporation, but get caught by security officer and former hacker The Plague. The Plague then tells authorities that the hackers stole a virus to capsize the company’s oil fleet, in order to cover up his own diabolical plan. What follows is a hunt to track down the high school hackers — and vindicate them in the end.
Why should I watch? "Hackers" is a cult classic with a cyberpunk feel that's about geeky teens who are too cool for their age. These techno teens wear leather jackets and sunglasses indoors, and ride motorcycles outdoors. Watch for the subculture and to relive the '90s.
Watch it on Amazon Prime Video.
Note: Protocol is owned by Axel Springer, whose chairman and CEO Mathias Döpfner is on the board of Netflix.