Stephen Arnell

Tech billionaires on screen: from Blade Runner to Steve Jobs

Tech billionaires on screen: from Blade Runner to Steve Jobs
Ryan Reynolds in Self/less (Image: Shutterstock)
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Billionaires (especially of the tech variety) are constantly in the news.

From the ‘space’ exploration antics of Messrs Bezos, Musk and Branson to the guilty verdicts recently handed out to Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes and of course, the possibility of criminal charges against former POTUS Donald Trump (who still claims billionaire status, despite wife Melania’s current yard sale).

Elizabeth Holmes will be the subject of Adam (Don't Look Up) McKay's upcoming biopic Bad Blood, with Jennifer Lawrence playing the suspiciously baritone-voiced grifter.

Incidentally, Mark Rylance played tech billionaire Peter Isherwell in Don’t Look Up (2021), a character owing an obvious debt to the oddly enunciating trio of Musk, Zuckerberg, and Holmes.

The super-rich have long been a subject of fascination but this interest appears to have increased over recent years if the popularity of shows such as Succession and Billions are anything to go by. The key difference being that previously, in the likes of Dynasty, Dallas, Falcon Crest and Howards’ Way, there were several good eggs amongst the well-heeled scheming parasites. Not so today.

A look at the plutocratic world in ten movies:

The Social Network (2010) Amazon Rent/Buy

Understandably Meta-boss Mark Zuckerberg didn’t care for David Fincher’s portrait of the Facebook founder, although he may have been flattered that an actual human being (Jesse Eisenberg) was chosen to play him.

As opposed to a computer-generated facsimile or animated mannequin that is.

Writer Aaron Sorkin (Being the Ricardos) puts the boot into the strangely coiffured boy billionaire, who, on the strength of the film, looks to be someone you would happily cross the street to avoid.

If there are any vaguely sympathetic characters in The Social Network, they would be Andrew Garfield’s former pal/partner Eduardo Saverin and (much more so) Rooney Mara as the fictional Erica Albright, who rightly dumps Zuckerberg at the beginning of the picture but continues to haunt his thoughts.

Ex Machina (2014) Amazon Rent/Buy

Pygmalion meets The Demon Seed (1977) in author Alex Garland’s critically lauded directorial debut.

Search engine programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is invited by preening Blue Book tech CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) to conduct the Turing artificial intelligence test on his humanoid robot Ava (Alicia Vikander) at his remote Norwegian retreat. What could possibly go wrong? Turns out, quite a lot.

Ex Machina is an enjoyable enough thriller, although a number of the plot’s supposed revelations are signposted well in advance.

Limitless (2011) Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy

Neil Burger’s fun popcorn thriller sees befuddled stoner/wannabe novelist Eddie Mora (Bradley Cooper) gets up an upgrade in the brain department thanks to an illegal nootropic drug called NZT-48. Mora swiftly completes his book (eagerly picked up by a publisher), successfully plays the stock market and generally cleans up his act. But…side effects, thuggish Eastern European loan sharks and predatory billionaire Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro) all threaten Eddie’s new life.

Limitless went on to spawn a short-lived CBS tv series of the same name. Cooper appeared as his character in the series, who is now a US senator. Luc Besson explored similar territory Lucy (2014), where the forced ingestion of synthetic drug CPH4 gives Scarlett Johansson God-like powers as she accesses the dormant part of the human brain.

Sadly, the received wisdom that we only use ten per cent of our brains is a myth. So, we’re stuck with what we’ve got.

All the Money in the World (2017) Amazon Rent/Buy

The late Christopher Plummer played Scrooge in The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017), the same year he starred as John Paul Getty in All the Money in the World (replacing the disgraced Kevin Spacey).

Of the two, Plummer’s turn as the curmudgeonly pre-conversion Scrooge is more affable than the glacial Getty, whose epic stinginess was evident in the installation of a pay phone at his Sutton Place mansion.

When Getty’s grandson John Paul Getty III is kidnapped in Rome, the old skinflint predictably refuses to pay the ransom until the boy’s right ear is sent to a newspaper.

Steve Jobs (2015) Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin ventured back in the world of tech billionaires with Danny Boyle’s biopic of Apple Inc co-founder Steve Jobs, played by Michael Fassbender.

As a human being, it could be said that Jobs gave Zuck a run for his money in the sh*tiness stakes, but Fassbender succeeded in giving him the humanity that his Facebook counterpart seems to lack.

Unlike The Social Network, Steve Jobs was a box office flop, probably signalling the limited appetite for movies about selfish real-life billionaires.

Ashton Kutcher starred as Jobs two years earlier, a movie with a considerably lower budget ($12m vs $30m) but which went on to make more money in cinemas than Boyle’s picture ($42.1m vs $34.4m).

Contact (1997) Amazon Rent/Buy

For once, a billionaire who is not a total scumbag in Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of the Carl Sagan novel.

Bezos-domed billionaire industrialist S. R. Hadden (John Hurt) funds Dr Ellie Arroway’s (Jodie Foster) attempts to contact alien intelligences when the US government shuts down the SETI (Search for extra-terrestrial intelligence) program.

A truly selfless act, as Hadden is dying of cancer and spending his final days in the Mir space station.

Unless he self-interestedly hopes (like Weyland in Prometheus) that the aliens might have a cure for the disease, which, in the case of movie billionaires is always a possibility, as we shall see in…

Self/less (2015) Amazon Rent/Buy

Borrowing heavily from John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966), Tarsem Singh’s (The Immortals) thriller sees cancer-stricken billionaire Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley) accept an offer from mysterious Professor Albright (Matthew Goode).

For a huge fee, Albright will transfer Hale’s consciousness into the body of a younger man, who just happens to be Mark Bitwell – played by Ryan Reynolds.

Lucky old Sir Ben, I hear you say, but the procedure is not without its side effects…

The concept of Self/less was utilised to better effect in Jordan Peele’s Get Out.

Kingsley’s Manhattan apartment in the movie was shot in the three-storey Trump Tower penthouse, proving that if nothing else, extreme wealth will not buy commensurate taste in décor and furnishings.

Blade Runner (1982) Amazon Rent/Buy

Joe Turkel (still with us at the grand old age of 94) plays Eldon Tyrell, head of the Tyrell Corporation and creator of the replicants, bioengineered humanoids with a limited lifespan of just four years.

Understandably, the replicants are miffed at their inbuilt obsolescence, and under leader Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) they seek to convince Tyrell to extend their lives.

No can do, which is unfortunate both for the renegade humanoids and Tyrell himself, who comes to a sticky end at the hands (literally) of Batty.

Whatever his faults, Eldon was shown to possess a poetic soul ('The light that burns twice as bright burns for half as long, and you have burned so very, very brightly, Roy') and a degree of empathy, far more than the aforementioned Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) in Prometheus (2012), another Ridley Scott sci-fi picture.

Loro/Them (2018) Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy

Paolo Sorrentino’s (The Hand of God) scabrous biopic of Italian media tycoon/politician Silvio Berlusconi plays like a modern-day Satyricon, with the great man’s catalogue of sins well to the fore – corruption, sexual exploitation of young women and egomania (amongst others).

But Sorrentino always delivers a stunning-looking movie and Loro is no exception, with superb cinematography (courtesy of Luca Bigazzi) and a marvellous performance from his regular leading man, the great Toni Servillo.

The following year Michael Winterbottom released Greed, a vastly inferior movie in a similar vein, this time with Steve Coogan as billionaire fashion mogul Sir Richard "Greedy" McCreadie, a thinly veiled portrait of the charmless Philip Green.

6 Underground (2019) Netflix

Lastly, Ryan Reynolds (again) plays that rarity, a genuinely altruistic billionaire, one Magnet S. Johnson (really?) who fakes his death for some reason and thence dedicates himself to taking down terrorists and criminals considered untouchable by the authorities.

He recruits a team, (each with their own special skillset) in his pursuit of said wrongdoers and, as the phrase goes, yada.

Shoot ‘em up auteur Michael Bay (Pearl Harbour) directs in his own inimitable fashion.

It is not saying much about the quality of Reynolds’ Red Notice (2021, Netflix) to say that it’s a better picture than 6 Underground, which itself rivals Mark Wahlberg’s recent unwatchable Infinite (2021, Amazon Prime) on the Richter scale of bloated action movie mediocrity.