When Gadgets Attack: Cautionary Films for the Tech-Dependent

Last week, Apple enthusiasts made the terrifying discovery that some iPhone 4 devices were surreptitiously taking photos of their users, then posting said spy pics during FaceTime calls without having been told to do so. Have smart phones become too smart? Is our collective dependence on rapidly evolving technology setting the stage for a SkyNet future? Movieline revisits the sinister history of gadgets and technology gone wrong in the movies for clues as to where and when the robot wars might begin -- and, hopefully, how humanity might be able to fight back.

1. WarGames (1983)

Techno-threat: A government supercomputer designed to run international war simulations takes its job way too seriously. Also see: Eagle Eye.

Vanquished by: A plucky teen hacker (Matthew Broderick) and a computer programmer (John Wood), who distract WOPR (War Operation Plan Response) with the simple, sedate, and eternally frustrating joys of a game of Tic-Tac-Toe.

2. The Terminator series (1984-2009)

Techno-threat: Robot assassins from the future controlled by SkyNet attempt to kill the future leader of mankind, repeatedly.

Vanquished by: Various models meet their end in the Terminator films thanks to a hydraulic press (see below), a vat of molten steel, a hydrogen fuel cell detonation, and, um, their own latent humanity. But has SkyNet's genocidal agenda ever been definitively stopped? No.

3. The Brave Little Toaster (1987)

Techno-threat: A self-aware toaster stalks its human owner across the country with gang of fellow household appliances.

Vanquished by: No one -- it's a happy ending for this toaster, after repeated brushes with death and a hero's sacrifice. Offscreen, however, lackluster confidence in animated features in the pre-Pixar era meant theatrical distributors were wary, despite a near-win at the Sundance Film Festival. Years later, BLT animators Joe Ranfft and John Lasseter ushered in a new era of animation at Pixar with Toy Story, so we can probably thank The Brave Little Toaster for at least partially spawning that terrifying modern classic about self-aware toys who stalk their human owner.

4. 976-EVIL (1988)

Techno-threat: Satan's personal telephone line dispenses horror-themed novelty advice and grants supernatural killin' powers to those that call it. "From director Robert 'Freddy Krueger' Englund."

Vanquished by: The cool kid, who reluctantly banishes his nerdy, possessed cousin to Hell.

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  • Andrew Lazo says:

    Nice article Jen! But no mention of 'The Ring'? Not that i even liked the two 'ring' movies but still...

  • Jen Yamato says:

    Dru! The Ring (Ringu) and all of the subsequent sequels, etc. are present and accounted for on page 2. 😉

  • Martini Shark says:

    Thank you for not including "Maximum Overdrive" on this list -- because I regard that as Steven King being the one who attacked humanity.

  • Jen Yamato says:

    Ha! So many killer gadget movies, only so many spaces in a Movieline Nine... but MO is a great terrible addition to the list.

    • JEN! You want a killer gadget movie? One that'll make you stop and think? Think about
      why you're watching it? Then might I suggest to you KILLDOZER, which came out in the
      middle seventies? Starred Clint Walker and Robert Urich. You want to know what I think.
      Well, it isn't half-bad.
      No, it's ALL BAD. One good thing, nobody ran out to make a sequel.
      KRIS the KLINGON

  • j'accuse! says:

    Jen, it's already happening. I just talked to a friend of mine who works in robotics and AI, and it's so close it scares me. I might just stop commenting on internet, before SkyNet becomes self aware.

  • j'accuse! says:

    To put it in pitch form, it's gonna be like Spielberg's Artificial Intelligence meets 1984 meets A Brave New World meets The Terminator future with a dash of Harrison Bergeron as directed by Terrence Mallick.

  • Jen Yamato says:

    Can I pre-order tickets for this movie on my smart phone?

  • J'accuse! says:

    No need. The robots will comp you the tickets. Oddly enough, writers will be more highly prized under SkyNet. Or so I've been told.

  • Brian Clark says:

    I love this, great work.
    But... I'd include DEMON SEED!
    Julie Christie carries the "Demon Seed." Fear for her.

  • Jen Yamato says:

    Yes! Great one. I wonder if Peter Bart stopped by to observe that set during filming...

  • Sarah says:

    I can't believe you forgot "Pulse" in which evil electricity (seriously) uses appliances to kill homeowners. Didn't everyone see that movie? Nope-just me, I think. I watched it as a kid because it starred Joey Lawrence. Obviously. Anyway, awesome article. "War Games" rules.

  • Martini Shark says:

    It's been done already - Eagle Eye. (I prefer to think of Shia as the robot).