In the last 30 to 40 years, surveillance technology has increasingly become standard trope in movies and television, although the idea of using surveillance has been in the popular culture at least as far back as George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty Four” which became a mainstay of spy films of the cold war era.
We are at a point now where surveillance technology is so pervasive that, for movie and television writers, it’s almost impossible to have a plot without featuring some kind of security camera or surveillance usually involving the main characters thwarting a security system in order to attain a “MacGuffin”. MacGuffin is slang for the basic object of interest in any movie, whether it be a briefcase, money, a car, top secure documents, or some other highly desired item around which a plot revolves. Also, modern detective or crime stories typically contain at least one scene where a computer “expert” is given security footage to “enhance”, usually to impossible levels.
Today, there are a plethora of movies in which the entire plot of the film has to do with surveillance where police procedurals, political thrillers, and detective stories are the most common. It’s almost to the point where it has become a genre onto itself. So rather than go the obvious route of listing the top surveillance movies (most of which list 1974’s “The Conversation” and 1998’s “Enemy of the State” toward the top), we have compiled a list of movies where a security camera, or some sort of surveillance equipment, is used prominently in one scene in movie. The surveillance scene doesn’t constitute the entire plot or the job of the main characters in a film. Here are the Top 5 Movie Scenes Featuring Surveillance (that are not the entire plot).
5. Revenge of the Nerds – “Panty Raid”
The Nerds watching the footage from their secret sorority video camera.
This scene is not necessarily integral to the overall plot of the film, but in this case, a security camera is used to show off the “nerdiness” of the characters. In 1984, the ability to hook up a security camera was entirely in the domain of the nerd and the “hi-tech” lengths in which they’ll go to pull off a revenge prank was stellar. The titular “nerds” throw a party that while at first is a bust, actually ends up becoming successful. At the height of the party, The Alpha Beta (fraternity) and Alpha Pis (sorority) prank the party by sending a herd of pigs though the house and taunt them from the street. The nerds, in turn, plot a panty raid on the Pi Delta’s, which involves the covert rigging of (now hilariously outdated) security cameras in the sorority house. In a later scene, the topless photos of the Delta Pi’s taken earlier by the nerds cameras win a charity sales event.
4. Hudson Hawk – “Swinging on a Star”
Bruce Willis and Danny Aiello about to conduct their heist under cover of looped security footage.
A fun scene from this 1991 Bruce Willis comedy/box-office bomb features two safe-cracking cat burglars pulling off a daring heist of an art museum (in order to steal a horse sculpture by Leonardo DaVinci). They rewire the security camera system so that it shows the museum guards, who are monitoring the bank of security monitors, a ‘rerun looping’ of a previous tape. The temporary fix will only last for “5 minutes and change”, but rather than time their heist by a watch, the two thieves decided to time their job based on the length of the song “Swinging on a Star”, since it comes to about 5 minutes and 32 seconds.
3. Frailty: “All the tapes look like this.”
The ending of this 2001 supernatural thriller has one very short scene featuring security camera footage, lasting mere seconds of screen time, but it provides the audience with crucial information that executes a clever plot twist.
The end of the film involves Dallas FBI agents realizing that the man who came into the office the previous day is a possible serial killer, but no one that was actually present in the office can remember any details about what he looked like. When they review a security tape to analyze it, the image is static and fuzzy precisely around the suspect but nowhere else. It’s revealed that every other security camera in the FBI has the same problem, meaning that no identification can be made on the suspect. Coming where it does in the film, it confirms to the audience that (spoiler alert) Matthew McConaughey’s character has actual supernatural powers, or something (possibly God) is allowing him to move though the world but as an undetectable entity.
2. Speed – “Security camera loop #2”
Another movie that exploited the trope of “looping the footage” is this 1995 Keanu Reeve’s vehicle (pun intended). The plot is simple. A bus is rigged with a bomb by a madman ex-bomb squad officer (played by Dennis Hopper) which he says will detonate if either the bus goes below 55 or if anyone attempts to leave the bus before his multi-million dollar ransom demands are met. It isn’t until late in the film when the hero character “Jack Traven” (Keanu) finally discovers a small hidden camera on the bus. The police work with a local news crew to find the frequency the camera is transmitting at, and have the victims on on the bus record a short loop of footage to rebroadcast to the bomber, allowing them to escape the bus. This “footage loop” cliche would go on to be used in dozens of movies and TV shows, but not nearly to the degree of the final entry in this article:
1. Blade Runner – “ENHANCE”
In one of the most imitated, and often parodied, scenes in movie history, Harrison Ford’s character, Dekard (the “Blade Runner” of this 1982 film), who’s job it is to hunt down rogue androids in the far off future of 2019, uses an enhancement device to zoom in impossibly far on a photo. OK, being that it’s a photo and not security footage is a little bit of a cheat, but read on to see why it’s relevant. To zoom in on details that would likely require a 1 million megapixel camera to capture, Dekard eventually finds the image he’s looking for in a mirror reflection.
The reason I chose this scene as being important in the history of surveillance cameras in pop culture is more for the cliche that it spawned. This single scene has inspired hundreds of movies and TV series to include at least one “video enhancement” scene where an authority figure asks a video expert to “enhance” security footage. More often than not, the evidence they are looking for is almost always in the reflection of some shiny object.