In a year full of gnarly horror movies— Hereditary , Halloween , Vice —no film prompted me to squirm away from the screen quite as frequently as the teen drama Eighth Grade . Bo Burnham's directorial debut follows the genial but despondent Kayla (Elsie Fisher) as she not only navigates middle school's judging adults, preening peers, and hallway hell, but also its social-media-induced social anxiety. As Kayla scrolls through her classmates' (seemingly) perfect lives online, she tries to project a similarly cool persona via a series of YouTube videos in which she delivers inspirational advice she barely practices herself, like "Don't care about what other people think of you." And she always signs off with her own wannabe catchphrase: " Gucci! "
Kayla's YouTube videos are so awkwardly staged, so achingly sincere—needy, but never thirsty—that they're almost impossible to watch. And the fewer "Likes" Kayla gets, the harder it is, it seems, for her to like herself. Her existence is mediated, and validated, solely through her screen.
Want more? Read all of WIRED’s year-end coverage
The smartphone-borne despair of Eighth Grade , one of 2018's best films, arrived during a year in which several filmmakers, from indie directors to franchise overlords, examined the way the internet has become inextricably wrapped with our lives—and the way we feel about ourselves. These weren't dramatic cyber-thrillers starring keyboard-crushing hackers, like The Net ; nor were they cool-headed examinations of the dot-com industry, like The Social Network . Instead, these were films in which technology was a crucial character—upending our onscreen heroes, and occasionally bringing them together.
One of the year's most successful examples of the-way-we-GIF-now storytelling was Searching , director Aneesh Chaganty's mystery about a widowed father (John Cho) who tries to find his missing daughter by going through her online history: chats, emails, videos, schedules. The movie plays out almost entirely on a single desktop, as Cho's character FaceTimes with anyone who might help the case, his increasingly hapless expression staring directly at us.
- Brian Raftery
How Searching Became More Than an 'Internet Movie'
- Rebecca Heilweil
Disney Brings the Web to Life in Ralph Breaks the Internet
- Peter Rubin
OK, We Need to Talk About Ready Player One
Turning the movie screen into a computer screen—or is it the other way around?—is a conceit that should have worn out after Searching 's first 10 minutes. (Actually, it maybe should've worn out after 2014's Unfriended .) But Chaganty unravels new clues and story beats with each new click and tab. The more Cho's father digs into his daughter's online history, the more he realizes how little he knows about her—that all of her devices have put up barriers he wasn't even aware were there. But without giving away too much of Searching , it's the dad's embrace of that same technology that allows him to learn more about her disappearance. And when he takes the investigation into the real world, he's aided by his iPhone. Searching makes the case that our analog connections don't have to be undone by our digital tools; in fact, they can even make them stronger.
The extremely low-budget Searching was a smash, making more than $70 million worldwide so far. But that sum is nothing compared to the box office returns for Incredibles 2 , which lured enough moviegoers to break $1 billion around the world. That's the kind of captive audience sought out by the Disney flick's main baddie, Screenslaver, a puppet-mastered evildoer—controlled by an evil telecom wiz—who uses hypnotic TV broadcasts to lecture the masses on their screen-affliction. "Every meaningful experience must be packaged and delivered to you to watch at a distance," Screenslaver says. "So that you can remain ever-sheltered, ever-passive, ever-ravenous consumers who can't train themselves to rise from their couches to break a sweat and participate in life."
Incredibles 2 doesn't wink at its own connection to its mouse-eared, screen-saturating media-behemoth backers, of course. And aside from the above Screenslaver rant, the movie doesn't bash technology too extensively. But it says a lot about our knowingly iffy relationship with our devices—and with the people who sell them—that the Disney-villain occupation of choice has evolved from evil sorcerer to tech titan who's become wary of tech's effects.
It says a lot about our knowingly iffy relationship with our devices—and with the people who sell them—that the Disney-villain occupation of choice has evolved from evil sorcerer to tech titan who's become wary of tech's effects.
That's a very different attitude toward Silicon Valley than the one presented in Ralph Breaks the Internet , another Disney hit—and a movie that at times feels unsettlingly outdated. Released right after a bombshell report about Facebook's abuse of power—and released in a year that saw Twitter-toxicity hit all-new levels— Ralph finds its titular hero stumbling into an internet that seems barely recognizable: Your favorite websites and services are depicted largely as smiley-faced, shiny institutions—not the data-sucking, hate-strewn techno-hells they've revealed themselves to be in recent years. Ralph does try to depict the consequences of spending too much time in the web (at one point, Ralph even wanders into a room full of negative comments). But at a time when even Bay Area parents are trying to keep their kiddos offline , Ralph 's optimistic worldview of the web seemed like it came from another era.
There was no such future-of-tech feel-goodery in the decidedly grown-up Upgrade , an agreeably schlocky action-thriller that's Very Verhoeven(™), and in the best ways possible. Logan Marshall-Green plays a mechanic who, following a brutal attack, is rendered a quadriplegic. He's then outfitted with an experimental new AI-assisted biotech that gives him near-super-powers, before slowly overtaking his life. Like all good smarter-than-average B-movies, Upgrade doesn't waste a second explaining its bigger ideas, which essentially amount to, "Wow, pretty crazy what we're allowing these gizmos to do to us, huh?" Instead, it spends its 100 minutes depicting the chaos of unchecked technology in a series of giddily gnarly fight scenes. But when the movie's action and ideology line up, the resulting moments cut like a knife .
The WIRED Guide to Memes
Upgrade 's bonkers battles may have been an extreme onscreen example of how our gadgetry shapes our destinies, but it's a notion that ran throughout the movies of 2018. In A Star is Born , amateur singer Ally (played by Lady Gaga) gets discovered by a boozy big-star rocker; but her fame really takes off when a one-off concert cameo is posted on YouTube, prompting the entire world to take another look at her. Netflix's Cam made horror out of erotic livestream performances. Even the animated kids' tale Smallfoot —a film in which Zendaya is Meechee , in case you haven't heard—features a desperate entertainer, played by James Corden, so eager to make a viral-video comeback that he tries to fake a buzz-generating yeti sighting. He also mounts a Queen parody number : "It's hard to compete with videos of twerking hogs/and water-skiing squirrels and monkeys riding on the backs of dogs."
Frankly, just about any of those clips seem preferable to the year's splashiest, most primo-pedigreed film about our new Machine Age: Ready Player One , director Steven Spielberg's VR-inflected pop-culture-orgasm-a-rama. A visually noisy, emotionally barren fantasy set in 2045—and lasting seemingly 2,045 minutes— Ready Player One follows a young gamer, Wade Watts (Tyler Sheridan), as he loses himself in OASIS, a virtual entertainment portal that provides him with avatar-pals far easier to deal with than actual flesh-and-blood fellow humans. He eventually becomes caught in both a virtual battle starring a gazillion different IP all-stars, and an IRL skirmish involving (surprise!) an evil tech-company titan. With Wade's help, humankind realizes it's best for people not to spend much time inside their games. So civilization decides to abandon OASIS … but just for two days a week. Otherwise: Game on!
It all makes for one of the most depressing movies of the year. Not only is Spielberg working with an especially thin script, but the film is incapable of committing to an idea: Ready Player One seemingly wants to cast a cynical glance at hours-swallowing videogame escapism. Yet it makes the OASIS so appetizing—filled with CGI-addled action sequences and spot-the-franchise cameos—that it's impossible to believe any of its characters would be better off by logging off. It's wagging its finger at game addicts with one hand, while sneaking a few dollars' worth of quarters into the slot with the other. And in a year that revealed the consequences of our collectively out-of-control screen time—the way we're all in the danger of becoming ghosts in the machine—that kind of shrugging attitude seems, like, totally uncool. Gucci!
- A sleeping Tesla driver highlights autopilot's biggest flaw
- PHOTOS: Giving animals the proper portrait treatment
- The WIRED Guide to online shopping (and digital retail)
- Inside the pricey war to influence your Instagram feed
- The music obsessives who tape your favorite concerts
- Hungry for even more deep dives on your next favorite topic? Sign up for the Backchannel newsletter