The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly: CS in Movies

With the Oscars happening this month, everyone is abuzz with movie recommendations. I have been doing some research of my own- into computer science in films!
I was not able to watch, umm I mean research, all movies that touch on computer science, but this should get you started. I avoided the whole genre of documentary, as well. (maybe for another post).  I have made notes when movies may be appropriate for the classroom. 

I divided the films into The Good (worth a watch), The Ugly (have some issues to consider), and The Bad (don't bother watching.) Further, I noted each movie with the computer science sub-category it touches on: mathematics, hacking/cyber security, computer science, artificial intelligence, and robotics. 

The Good:
Hidden Figures (Mathematics) 
    I hope you have already seen this film.  If not, you must watch it NOW. It is also worth another watch! We showed it to our 7th-grade class after the release. They were gripped from beginning to end. The movie (based on a book) tells the story of Katherine Jonson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson who were uncredited African American woman mathematicians working for what would later become NASA. 

Algorithm ( Hacking)
    Although this intense film explores hacking with realistic hacking references, it does feature the typical emo- hacking dude. To his credit, he knows his limitations (he is not a lone, mythical hacker) of his skills so reaches out to various interesting friends for different components of his hacking project. This film or portions of it may be workable in the classroom.

Electric Dreams (episode 2) (AI) 
    OK, this is actually a TV Show, but I appreciated how it does not make all AI robots the villain. It is also about a class period long. This episode could easily be paired with a Philip K. Dick science fiction short story and an article on current AI innovations.

Spare Parts (Robotics)
    This film is not so much about the robotics itself but about the persistence a group of teens in an Arizona border town to build a robot to compete in a national competition. Based on a true story,  it depicts students who were not born in the United States and with rocky home lives fighting for knowledge and recognition. The real story helped bring change in how undocumented adults could attain citizenship through military service. We showed this film to our 7th graders, and I don't think there was a dry face in the audience by the end.  
      The movie is based on Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream.

War Games (Cyber Security)
    Floppies and a young Matthew Broderick!  If that wasn't enough for you, the movie caused President Reagan to take a look at the DOD's cyber security and to create laws which would later become our current  Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. So without Matthew Broderick, we would never have had cyber security.  This movie is appropriate for 5th grade and up but does have some cuss words. 

The Iron Giant (Robotics)
    This all-ages short animation is like the ET of robotics since the robot comes from outer space and has supernatural powers. It is a sweet story with great animation and worth a watch in class perhaps on the last day of the school. 

The Ugly:

Hackers (Hacking/ Cyber Security).
     This campy romp is an artistic interpretation of what hacking looks like. The cult classic is adored by my 16-year-old son who is a Cyber Patriot.  Minor sexually suggestive content and references to drug use to consider before showing it in a high school class setting. This 1995 film features a diverse group of hackers who revel in their abilities for ability's sake. They band together to save the world from impending ecological disaster by an evil hacker.  Due to this film's pro-hacking attitude, it would need to be followed up with conversations. Common Sense Media sums it up well "The anti-authoritarian culture of computer hacking is glorified, and little distinction is made between harmless pranks and destructive viruses." You could choose to ignore this film, but it may be a great way to open discussions with students about this prevalent youthful attitude towards hacking. 

Imitation Game (Cryptology) 
    This is one of my favorite films. Amazing film techniques, great acting. However, it is a real and unfortunate story about Britain's harmful anti-homosexual policies of the 1950's.  I do not recommend this movie for the classes since it's depiction is intense and real. However, I suggest teachers see the movie and familiarize themselves with the story.  The movie, based on Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges, profiles Turing's life and his struggle to create the enigma machine to help defend Britain during World War 2.

Ex Machina (AI, Data and privacy concerns)
    This is another movie just for teachers. It is an intense science fiction movie that posits the idea that all our data is being fed to train an artificial intelligence being.  It is an interesting idea which then becomes a nightmare. 

Primer (Mathematics/ Physics)
    This film is really about bending the laws of physics to accidentally create a time machine and not computer science or math. Although an older movie, the director does a great job of telling the story in full control of the film craft.  The film would also be a good choice in a film class to examine the technique of voice over and low budget editing.  I recommend showing the movie to your students and asking "What did you notice?" Hopefully, they will all resoundingly respond 'There were no POC or Women!" You could pair the film with sections of the book Future Ethics which discusses the ethical concerns of recent Silicon Valley innovation.  

The Bad:
    Call me too nice, but I didn't find any movies with no redeeming value. I guess I will have to continue my research! 

More Importantly:

 What is your favorite movie that touches on computer science? Share in the comments!



Submitted by Augustine Garcia on Thu, 11/11/2021 - 6:18 pm EST

The movies listed below are some of my favorites.  All bring up many issues within the CS community and illustrate where innovation can take us.


Ready Player One - shows an alternative universe to reality.  Maybe the MetaVerse?  

Tomorrowland - engineering the future, problem-solving, innovation

The Matrix & Terminator - The trouble with AI

Tron - Just one of the best, conscript!

Wreck-it Ralph Wrecks the Internet - Maybe this is the metaverse?

Thanks for starting this!