Wide Angle

This Was the Year the Movies Finally Understood the Internet

More than ever, filmmakers are capturing the realities of living online.

Photo illustration of John Cho in Searching, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade, and Madeline Brewer in Cam.
Clockwise from top left: John Cho in Searching, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade, and Madeline Brewer in Cam.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Netflix, Disney, Sundance Institute, and A24.

This post contains mild spoilers for Ralph Breaks the Internet, Cam, Eighth Grade, and Searching.

Movies about the internet tend to range from the vexingly unrealistic to the luridly sensationalistic, with most of them oddly incurious about the web’s effect on our lives. The ’90s are largely remembered for the former, with movies named after digital subjects—Hackers, The Net—that those films didn’t seem to understand. During Silicon Valley’s golden PR years, Hollywood gave us tech-visionary biopics like The Social Network and Steve Jobs that mythologized their inventor subjects while displaying little sustained interest in their creations. More recently, features like 2017’s Ingrid Goes West, and documentaries like 2010’s Catfish and 2016’s Tickled, have contributed to a growing canon of movies that understand the internet as it exists. But it’s taken until 2018 for the movies to finally catch on to the web and produce more than just the occasional exception that proves the rule. This year, four films—Ralph Breaks the Internet, Searching, Eighth Grade, and Cam—successfully dramatized and illuminated how the web has transformed our relationships to ourselves and each other.

One of the less desirable features of our current, hyper-connected lives is that it’s never been so easy to ravage someone else’s life. The ability to destabilize or devastate another person’s existence is often just a few clicks or taps away. That gulf between the relative ease of ruination and the often overwhelming effect on the victim is a key element that makes Ralph Breaks the Internet not just a compelling piece of family entertainment but a resonant depiction of the web. When Ralph becomes jealous of his best friend Vanellope’s new crew, all he has to do to scare her away from moving in with them to the web is release a single virus in a small corner of cyberspace. No sooner does Ralph will it that the deed is done. The virus makes countless copies of Ralph himself, which eventually agglomerate to become a Ralphzilla that destroys the web’s infrastructure in pursuit of trapping Vanellope in their relationship.

As I previously wrote, Ralphzilla is an evocative metaphor for, among other things, revenge porn. Protagonists have been losing control of their creations at least since Frankenstein’s monster first escaped to terrorize the countryside. But there’s something online-specific about the amplification via replication of his insecurities and possessiveness—and their curdling into a fast-moving from-all-sides form of intimidation that its progenitor can’t quite steer or stop. Ralph Breaks the Internet feels more or less accurate in its portrayal of today’s web as a giant mall, and the film is undeniably clever in its personifications of various features of the web, such as pop-up ads and autofill. But it’s the third-act creation of Ralphzilla that gets at a core truth about how our digital lives have fundamentally changed human relationships through the power we now have over one another, to use or abuse.

Searching is more optimistic about the web. Starring John Cho as the widowed father of a teenage girl who goes missing, the desktop drama follows the protagonist’s browser-based pursuit to locate his child’s whereabouts. What turns up encompasses a parent’s greatest nightmare and their greatest fantasy about the web: Cho’s David learns that his 16-year-old daughter, Margot (Michelle La), had a set of interests, concerns, and acquaintances about which he knew nothing. But the not particularly web-savvy David is ultimately able to save his daughter by following her digital footprints.

Directed by Aneesh Chaganty, who made his name working for Google’s ad department, Searching sometimes looks a little too slick and glossy, as if we’re glimpsing an internet of the near-future. But it also captures the scale of the internet’s presence in our lives, both past and present. The film’s opening montage, which traces Margot’s childhood through the family’s transition from a Windows 98 OS (cue that infamous modem sound) to an Apple desktop, evokes the passage of time through tech nostalgia. In later scenes that prove no less resonant, David has to fish for login information on a forgotten email account and a retired computer that had belonged to his dead wife, revealing the way our old laptops become archives of our younger selves.

As David continues his search, he gradually realizes the ways the internet has widened the fissures between him and his daughter. Their individual retreats to their digital silos are a product of their varying means of coping with grief. But that divergence also serves as an exaggeration of an acutely recognizable Web 2.0 dynamic—one where generational divides, especially, get magnified into canyons. That’s partly why the scenes in which David discovers how much he didn’t know about Margot make for some of the film’s most poignant moments: Any viewer knows the lonesome awareness of how the personalized algorithms that guide our browsing habits make us each become an island the instant we log on.

Unsurprisingly, one of the year’s smartest web-centric films hails from a native son. YouTube comedian–turned–indie-filmmaker Bo Burnham wrote and directed Eighth Grade, an observant and deeply compassionate look at how social media and web videos have raised the stakes for that most confusing but inescapable feature of middle school: the art of self-presentation. Nothing much happens in Eighth Grade, and therein lies its greatness. Its noneventfulness leaves room to follow Elsie Fisher’s Kayla as she passes from one day to the next, scrolling her feeds the entire while. Is that How Teens Socialize Now, or a mindless distraction, or simple muscle memory? It seems no one, including the characters and Burnham, could say.

The web isn’t a bogeyman in Eighth Grade but a fact of life. (The scariest thing in the film is, naturally, male aggression.) But Eighth Grade takes seriously the notion that social media further intensifies the (already pretty intense) feelings of self-consciousness that come with puberty. It’s bad enough that you have no idea what’s going on with your body, and your rapidly evolving identity, and that everybody seems to be watching your every clueless step. Now they can watch you through every single post and video, too. The early scene in which Kayla posts a patently fake “I woke up like this” selfie after applying a full face of makeup aptly captures both the obsessive vanity that act requires as well as how such seeming self-absorption is the obvious consequence of feeling scrutinized all the time.

But the most notable false face in Eighth Grade is the veneer of expertise Kayla assumes as part of her YouTube persona. YouTube Kayla is full of can-do optimism and hard-earned wisdom—qualities the middle-schooler doesn’t yet possess. YouTube Kayla instructs her (nonexistent) viewers on the importance of being yourself and putting yourself out there, parroting, probably, videos that the teen herself has watched on the same topics. Many an adolescence is devoted to learning how to look like you know what you’re doing, but Eighth Grade suggests a new kind of pressure among young people to know everything, especially when they’ve got every piece of information they could possibly want at their fingertips, and a social imperative to appear every bit as knowledgeable and self-assured as the YouTubers they watch.

The faux authority that Kayla evinces in her videos is as cringetastic as anything else in the film, in part because you can feel her desperation to mime the seeming self-possession of everyone else around her. (Her idiot crush, for instance, says during a school-shooting drill that he can’t wait for the real thing, so certain is he that he’ll blow away the bad guy.) When, toward the end of the film, Kayla makes a video just for her future self, she’s finally able to indulge in the kind of vulnerability and uncertainty she’d avoided copping to in front of any other audience.

But the most striking depiction of the internet at the movies this year might be Netflix’s Cam, a thriller about the relative luxuries, and unique hazards, of having the web as one’s office. Cam girl Alice (Madeline Brewer) performs for slobbering crowds on a webcam platform that that ranks its contractors, and she is determined to climb the charts. To do that, she believes she has to be more daring and creative than the other girls—to do something more than just loll in bed and peel off her clothes. In the film’s opening scene, she pretends to slit her throat for clicks, fake blood gushing in dramatic fashion on to her clothes. She’s not just competing for eyeballs with every other webcam model on the site, after all, but against every other damn thing on the internet.

Fascinatingly, many of Alice’s troubles are those of any other freelancer: long hours that never seem enough, an exhausting reliance on tips, and a hazy boundary between her job and her personal life that makes work-life balance seem like a cruel joke. But her other struggles are more web-specific, especially after a mysterious double hijacks her account: opaque and unhelpful customer service, police and others (especially of older generations) who don’t understand the nature of her work, and most disturbingly, the all-too-easy duplicability of her labor.

In many ways, Alice’s plight isn’t too different from that of an Uber driver’s. She works her tail off to make sure her customers get what they want, and all the while, a company or A.I. or some other hidden force is stealing the raw data she’s producing to ultimately render her work dispensable. Even more offensive to a creative mind like Alice, the algorithm that’s trying to put her out of business is smoothing out all the individual quirks that make her unique to deliver the most mass-appeal version of her. Cam boasts the authenticity of having been written by a former webcam model (Isa Mazzei) in its wealth of lived-in details, but the film is arguably even better at illustrating how industries and labor itself are being transformed by the web. In its dystopic intimations we can see the present, and possible future, of our ever-shifting relationship to technological progress. There’s no need to exaggerate.