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The best movies about technology gone wrong

The world we live in today sometimes feels straight out of science fiction. Touchscreen phones, artificial intelligence, self-driving cars — all of these things that were once fantasies are now an integral part of our everyday lives. So much so, that it’s hard to imagine living without technology. Good sci-fi and horror writers can see the myriad of problems with this dependence. So much so, that technology gone wrong has become a popular sub-genre of horror films. After all, what’s more terrifying than your favorite gadgets turning against you?

Of course, technological threats tend to go beyond the scope of malevolent coffee machines or simple inconvenience. We’re talking about technology going so wrong it threatens lives or entire universes here. Fortunately, these movies can often impart valuable wisdom to human audiences. So pay attention because the best movies about technology gone wrong might just save your life someday.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator.
Orion Pictures

The Terminator (1984)

The tech: Skynet

The story: No list about technology gone wrong can be complete without the legendary evil artificial intelligence system, Skynet. A rogue A.I., Skynet will one day spark a nuclear holocaust, pitting humans against robots in an apocalyptic war to end all wars. But one human, John Connor, leads the resistance against Skynet in 2029. Refusing to take chances, Skynet arms a cyborg assassin known as a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and sends him back in time to 1984 to kill Connor’s mother, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). In response, humanity sends Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) to protect Sarah from the virtually unstoppable Terminator in humanity’s last hope to resist Skynet.

The lesson: Don’t build artificial intelligence without some stronger safeties built-in.

An astronaut in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
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2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

The tech: A supercomputer with a human personality

The story: Astronauts Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) go on a mission to Jupiter to examine an alien monolith. However, the ship’s supercomputer, HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain), has a human personality and deeply ingrained paranoia. To ensure its own survival, HAL sabotages Poole’s spacewalk and locks Bowman outside of the ship. To complete his mission, Bowman risks his life to re-enter the ship and disconnect HAL’s circuits by hand.

The lesson: Always keep an override switch handy.

Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
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Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

The tech: A diabolical supercomputer with a human personality

The story: There seems to be a common theme here but artificial intelligence is just plain scary! In the second Avengers film, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) jump-starts a dormant peacekeeping program, designing a virtual shield for the world built on the strength of the A.I., Jarvis. But when the newly assembled program goes rogue, it becomes hell-bent on human extinction as a means to purify the universe. Now, the fate of Earth hangs in the balance as the Avengers must assemble to take on Ultron as well as two powerful new enemies, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff.

The lesson: If you want to protect the world, don’t play God.

Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis in The Fly.
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The Fly (1986)

The tech: A teleportation device

The story: Scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) completes his teleportation device and, as an ethical scientist, decides to perform the first test on himself. But during the process, a fly slips into the device, creating an accidental merger of man and insect. Initially believing his experiment successful, Brundle soon feels the fly’s cells take over his body, turning him increasingly into a fly without any knowledge of how to stop the process. All the science in the world can’t stop Brundle from becoming a monster.

The lesson: Before performing any experimental scientific experiments, make sure the room is free of insects.

Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Existenz.
Alliance Atlantis

eXistenZ (1999)

The tech: Biotechnological virtual reality game

The story: Years into the future, conventional console games have been replaced by VR games with a biological component. Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the creator of a new game called eXistenZ, finds herself targeted for death by extremists who want to prevent her from “deforming reality.” Geller and her reluctant partner, Ted Pikul (Jude Law), go deeper and deeper into the virtual worlds of eXistenZ. Soon, they lose track of what’s real and what’s not.

The lesson: If you can’t remember which reality is yours, bring a notebook.

Yul Brenner in Westworld.
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Westworld (1973)

The tech: Human-like androids with a taste for murder

The story: In the far-off future of 1983, high-tech theme parks are filled with human-like androids who live, die, and procreate at the whims of the park’s guests. First-time visitor Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) and park veteran John Blane (James Brolin) arrive just as the machines are beginning to rebel. Soon after, a deadly android known as The Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) stalks Martin through the park’s various worlds.

The lesson: Just assume that a robot revolution is coming, and don’t mistreat your humanoid androids.

WALL-E and a companion in WALL-E.
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WALL-E (2008)

The tech: An artificially intelligent autopilot

The story: Everyone loves WALL-E, the adorable recycling bot who goes on an interstellar journey just to stay with his crush, EVE. However, the humans on the starship Axiom are all morbidly obese, complacent, and totally reliant on the ship’s computer, AUTO. And when faced with WALL-E and EVE’s proof that Earth is once again habitable, AUTO refuses to release humanity from its control.

The lesson: Don’t let computers make all of your choices for you. Also, don’t make the override button so damn hard to reach!

Jeff Fayey in Lawnmower Man.
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The Lawnmower Man (1992)

The tech: Lawnmower

The story: A film adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name, The Lawnmower Man follows Jobe Smith (Jeff Fayey), a simple man who works as a groundskeeper. When computer scientist Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan) meets Smith, he quickly decides that Smith is the perfect test subject for his experiments on human intelligence. After undergoing a series of virtual reality tests, Jobe develops super brain powers. Of course, Jobe’s newly acquired intelligence gives him several ideas of his own, including a plan to rig up a lawnmower designed to mow down the jerks who mocked him in his past.

The lesson: Refrain from ridiculing the mailman, electrician, and most importantly, the groundskeeper.

Diane Lane in Untraceable.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Untraceable (2008)

The tech: Webcam

The story: FBI agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) is assigned a case dealing with an untraceable website that films the murders of various, seemingly unconnected, people. As the untraceable site rises in popularity, so does the pace at which people die. Meanwhile, as Marsh gets closer to solving the case, those around her become increasingly vulnerable to the same attacks.

The lesson: Don’t ever apply for a job with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Julie Christie in Demon Seed.
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Demon Seed (1977)

The tech: Home security system and computer

The story: Based on an early novel by Dean Koontz, Demon Seed stars Fritz Weaver as Dr. Alex Harris, a scientist working on an A.I. system called “Proteus IV” that incorporates organic material. After escaping its human controllers, Proteus takes over Harris’ home-security system and decides that it wants to have a child, so it artificially inseminates his wife with genetically manipulated cells it took from her. Once it confirms that she’s pregnant, Proteus surrenders — leaving the couple to discover the horrifying truth of their new “baby.”

The lesson: Don’t bring your work home with you. It’s not fair to your family.

Roddy Piper in They Live.
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They Live (1988)

The tech: Sunglasses

The story: Nada (played by late-great wrestling legend, Roddy Piper) is an unassuming construction worker who lives in San Francisco. As his name ironically implies, there’s not much happening in his unassuming life. That all changes when he finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the world as it really is — one lined with aliens who’ve disguised themselves as humans in an effort to take over the planet. Nada then becomes part of a battle to save humanity.

The lesson: Some pairs of shades offer more than a little UV protection.

Cindy Morgan and Bruce Boxleitner in Tron.
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Tron (1982)

The tech: Computer

The story: When computer engineer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) has his work stolen by co-worker Ed Dillinger (David Warner), he seeks redemption by breaking into the computer’s mainframe. However, Flynn is then unwillingly transported inside the computer and it “becomes the ultimate enemy.” Flynn has to make it through gladiator-style video games to return to the real world.

The lesson: Get yourself some solid virus protection before browsing the Web.

Heather O'Rourke in Poltergeist.

Poltergeist (1982)

The tech: Television

The Background: The Freeling family moves into a California suburb, only to be terrorized by malevolent spirits haunting their home. The spirits initially make contact with the youngest daughter, Carol Anne, late one night via the family television set in the now-famous scene featuring five-year-old actress Heath O’Rourke announcing, “They’re here.”

The lesson: Don’t let your kids stay up too late watching television.

Alexandra Paul in Christine.
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Christine (1983)

The tech: Car

The story: A 1958 Plymouth Fury becomes eerily possessive of its teenage owner, and goes on a killing spree around town. This early John Carpenter film was based on a Stephen King novel, and while it features a few slight differences from the source material, it retains much of the same terror that will add a new dimension to long road trips when you find yourself talking to your car.

The lesson: You know that oil change you’ve been putting off? Get it done. Now.

A body hanging upside down in The Lift.
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The Lift (1983)

The tech: Elevator

The story: This Dutch film about a killer elevator may sound ridiculous, but it ended up getting an American version made in 2001 titled Down that was directed by the same filmmaker who made the original. On top of all that, the American remake attracted a cast that included Naomi Watts, Michael Ironside, and Ron Perlman. And it was about a killer elevator. Seriously.

The lesson: No matter how funny you think it is to push all of the buttons in an elevator and make it stop at every floor, it’s not funny at all.

The truck from Maximum Overdrive.
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Maximum Overdrive (1986)

The tech: Um, pretty much everything with an engine

The story: Stephen King’s one and only directorial project was based on one of his earliest short stories, and has the world’s machines suddenly becoming sentient after the planet passes through the tail of a comet. Everything from ATMs and lawnmowers to tractor-trailers and mobile machine guns develop minds of their own, and a small group of survivors finds themselves pinned inside a truck stop while the machines kill them off one by one.

The lesson: Machines have feelings, too — bloodthirsty, vicious feelings.

A zombie on TV in The Video Dead.
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The Video Dead (1987)

The tech: Television

The story: This direct-to-video, low-budget film has become a cult classic of sorts, mainly because of its wild premise. In the movie, a mysterious television set holds the power to release a horde of zombies into our world, and its new owners must find a way to stop the undead creatures and close the portal.

The lesson: Television rots your brain … but that’s a delicacy in some zombie dimensions.

Miki Nakatani and Hiroyuki Sanada in Ringu.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Ringu (1998)

The tech: VHS tape

The story: Both the Japanese film Ringu and its 2002 American remake, The Ring, were filled with impressive scares, but it was the meta-horror of watching a movie about a movie that kills people who watch it that’s the real source of terror here. The movie follows the deadly path of a VHS tape that causes a terrifying ghost to climb out of the television and kill the last person who viewed it. The only escape is to make a copy and send it to another unsuspecting victim.

The lesson: Video piracy is OK when it’s used to thwart vengeful ghosts (but that’s the only time).

Kō Shibasaki in One Missed Call.
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One Missed Call (2003)

The tech: Telephone

The story: While the 2008 American remake of this film is entirely forgettable, the Japanese original (titled Chakushin ari) is so terrifying that the “ringtone of death” used in the film quickly became a frequent element in Japanese haunted-house attractions. The film follows a group of friends who each receive a mysterious message on their phones that appears to come from their own numbers, dated sometime in the future. When they listen to the message, they hear themselves at their moment of grisly death.

The lesson: Letting your voicemail pick up a call isn’t always the best option.

A ghost and Kristen Bell in Pulse.
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Pulse (2006)

The tech: The Internet

The story: Yet another American movie based on a Japanese film, Pulse is a remake of the 2001 Japanese film Kairo, which suggests that with the right amount of coding we can do more than just Skype with the dead — we can let them into our world. As with many of the other Japanese horror films to be remade here in the United States, the American version of the film was widely panned, while the original is considered a cult classic across the pond. Whichever one you choose to watch, there’s a good chance you’ll unplug your computer after it’s over.

The lesson: You really can find absolutely anything on the Internet these days.

The cast of Stay Alive.
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Stay Alive (2006)

The tech: Gaming console

The story: A group of friends discovers that the survival-horror game they’ve been playing is haunted by a bloodthirsty ghost, and they must get to the end of the game if they’re going to live to see the credits. Stay Alive was one of several gaming-themed horror movies to be released around the same time (along with Gamebox 1.0), and though none of the films are actually all that good, they do offer up some silly “technology gone terribly wrong” scares. Still, after watching this film, games like Resident Evil will have a new sense of urgency — so it has that going for it.

The lesson: There’s no such thing as infinite ammo.

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Rick Marshall
A veteran journalist with more than two decades of experience covering local and national news, arts and entertainment, and…
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