Webcams in Movies – A Look Back

 The ever-watchful, unblinking eyes of machines used by imaginative movie makers for decades have been either eerily similar or straight out uses of common webcams used today. So I thought I would take a look back at a few of the uses of webcams in movie history (the dollar figures are estimated gross box office):

  1. Short Circuit” – $40,697,761 – 1986 — Long before Wall-E, Hollywood gave us another adorable robot that ran on tank-treads and had two expressive eyes: Johnny Five. It was Johnny Five’s wide eye-like cameras that gave the robot his humanity, and a wide range of expressions.  It was these webcam peepers that gave him his soul.
  2. Saturn 3” – $9,000,000 – 1980 —  While Johnny Five’s camera eyes were the key to his humanity, Hector the terrifying robot from Saturn 3 was the opposite case.  Hector’s camera eyes were tiny and bug-like compared to his massive body.  They were unblinking and telegraphed no emotions.  These cold, life-less eyes made this robot inhuman and utterly frightening.
  3. The Terminator” – $78,019,031 – 1984 — A bullet-proof, super-strong, unstoppable Arnold Schwarzenegger is pretty scary. But The Terminator got a whole lot more scary once the flesh on his face gave way and revealed a cold metal skull and iconic unblinking red cameras instead of eyes.  It was in that moment that the audience finally understood just how inhuman the Terminator really was. Those glowing red eyes made the audience understand that this being was not at all capable of empathy or mercy or fear.  The eyes were the key to letting us know he was truly just a machine.
  4. Colossus: The Forbin Project” – 1970 — This film is one of the more obscure titles on the list, but also one of the most innovative in its use of cameras. The film is set decades ago, early in the days of the Cold War and features a supercomputer named Colossus.  In short, Colossus becomes sentient and decides to take over the world.  Colossus’s primary ambassador to humanity is his chief inventor, Dr. Forbin.  The story follows Forbin as he plots to undermine Colossus’s plans, all while the computer watches his every move, day and night through a network of security cameras.
  5. 2001: A Space Odyssey” – $56,715,371 – 1968 — This Stanley Kubrick classic boasts the most famous webcam of all time—the all-seeing eye of HAL 9000.  HAL is Cyclops.  His single unblinking wide eye is mildly unnerving even at the start of 2001, when we know him to be a gentle, benevolent caretaker.  As the plot unfurls, and HAL’s mood darkens, the eye loses any of the humanity it started with and becomes an oppressive, ominous symbol, infusing every moment with anticipation and fear.Kubrick’s vision of the video call was an odd hybrid of Skype and 1960s phone booths.  It is the perfect illustration of science fiction’s biggest problem:  while the technological predictions are often accurate, the context of those innovations in society is almost impossible to predict.  Kubrick showed us the webcam as it would have been without an internet.
  6. 1984” –$8,400,000 – 1984 —  While 1984 doesn’t feature any particularly iconic webcams insofar as hardware is concerned, the presence of the ever watchful eyes of Big Brother is the driving force of the movie.  Our protagonist is watched nearly every moment of his life, and even the act of leaving the surveillance is worthy of scrutiny and suspicion.
  7. Eagle Eye” – $178,066,569 – 2008 — This thriller brings the 1984 pervasive surveillance theme up to date, though without the same philosophical morality play, or intellectual weight.  The film does, however, open our eyes to the current state of technology, and reminds us that we are already watched by cameras almost everywhere.  These cameras exist on distinct and separate networks, if they are networked at all- but Eagle Eye explores the nightmare that would ensure if a single entity were to gain access to all of the cameras at once.
  8. Revenge of the Nerds” – $40,900,000 – 1984 – Oh, how we long for the ‘80s, when movies taught us that serious pranks were socially acceptable.  In Revenge of the Nerds, our heroes boldly set up a webcam in the sorority house of some girls who had wronged them.  Oddly, this was one of the more accurate movie predictions of what webcams would actually be used for in the future.
  9. Avatar” – $2,782,275,172 – 2009 — In this Dances With Wolves meets Jurassic Park meets Starship Troopers blockbuster, the futuristic military-industrial complex destroys the environment and the native tribes as evilly as possible.  Avatar is getting a nod here because this movie features a scene where a giant bulldozer is used to mow down the pristine forest…by remote control.  Our hero stalls the destruction by climbing the giant bulldozer and knocking out the cluster of webcams that were letting the operator see what was going on.
    Desktop Webcam
  10. The Matrix” – $460,279,930 – 1999 — We had to give a nod to The Matrix for its general theme of ever-present watchful eyes of machines.  One of the film’s great establishing shots features a grid of monitors all watching Mr. Anderson (soon to claim the name ‘Neo’) as he sits in an interrogation room.  The audience is left to wonder who is watching the monitors as the camera zooms into the grid, through the screen, and into the room with our hero.
  11. American Pie” – $234,723,148 – 1999 — American Pie was one of the first “gross-out comedies” to hit the scene, breaching several taboos and getting laughs out of situations that most filmmakers wouldn’t dare to touch.  In one of the film’s most famous scenes, we see an echo of the Revenge of the Nerds webcam usage 15 years earlier: our protagonists set up a webcam to spy on a disrobing coed.
  12. Lost in Space” – $136,159,423 – 1998 — In this reboot of the old sci-fi classic, we follow a family of brilliant scientists as they are launched into space with a brash starship pilot, an evil doctor, and a killer robot.  The film had brilliant special effects throughout, and used futuristic webcams in a number of situations, including a remote control for a robot, and most notably as a wristwatch-mounted video diary recorder for Penny, the family’s youngest daughter.  Although the movie is more fantasy than science, the wrist-mounted webcam diary is looking like a fairly accurate prediction.  Cameras have already been built into watches so it seems all we’re missing is the software.

Are there any other great movies you can think of that use webcams or something similar in them? If so, share them with me in your comments below.

About the Author: David Whitworth