Portraying the Internet in stories on-screen

A look at the new movie The Fifth Estate highlights the difficulties of portraying Internet action in film:

“[It’s] almost like going back to the basics of silent filmmaking – you are going to do some reading in this,” Condon told WIRED about his use of the cyber-visuals. “The question is: How to make that as immersive as possible. I think one of the things about a dramatized version as opposed to some of the very very good [documentaries] – Alex Gibney’s was wonderful – is that this is meant to give you an experience of, a sense of what it was like to be in the room.”Ok, sure. But does the room have to be a metaphorical representation of the internet when the actual apartments/cafes/hacker spaces where the WikiLeaks team worked suffice? Probably not. In fairness, there is one moment when the aforementioned fake office is shown going up in flames as Domscheit-Berg (played by Daniel Brühl) deletes troves of WikiLeaks files that is poignant, even if a bit much, but simply showing the disappearing files got across the same message. And there is more than enough drama in the hurried scenes set in hacker conferences, the radical underground world of Berlin’s Tacheles, and the newsrooms of the world’s most prestigious newspapers to go around — dramatizing online chat doesn’t feel necessary…

But that doesn’t save it from the trap that has plagued modern cyber-thrillers from Hackers to The Net. The internet — and documents and troves of data it transmits and contains — are not characters. They don’t have feelings or personalities, and it’s hard to make drama out of what happens on them.

The Social Network is one of the few films to do it well, and even though it took its own liberties; the amount of time we actually spent watching Mark Zuckerberg program was minimal and it managed to depict the internet and tech culture in a way that didn’t induce the sort of eye-rolling from tech-savvy viewers that Fifth Estate likely will. While the film ostensibly took place in the world of Facebook, it sidestepped the pitfalls of the online thriller by never taking its gaze off of the sometimes funny, sometimes brilliant interactions between Mark Zuckerberg and his cofounders and partners (“A million dollars isn’t cool, you know what’s cool? … A billion dollars.”) The Fifth Estate attempts to do the same with Assange and his cohorts, but it gets muddled in explaining things and introducing unnecessary characters and loses its way. It’s a shame.

So The Social Network used the Internet as a prop in order to tell more common stories about human relationships, specifically the difficulty a young man has in building strong relationships with females. In this way, the star of the film is not really Facebook – it is the people involved in its making. People don’t have to care about or know about Facebook at all to know the familiar contours of a film about relationships. I’m also reminded of how The Matrix tried to show an always-on, connected data source: a screen of scrolling numbers and bits, representing information. But, again, that trilogy didn’t spend much time in those scenes and instead told a familiar story about oppressed people – and a chosen one – fighting back.

While this is an interesting analysis, how exactly could a film display the Internet without relying more on relationships? What would be a proper cinematic portrayal of the Internet?