Welcome back to the ExpressVPN viewing lounge, where we’ll be presenting more of our favorite privacy-themed movies and TV shows.
We’ve heard your suggestions from our original post and included your recommendations into this list. So without further ado, let’s jump into what you should watch next!
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WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Jump to our favorite movies and shows that portray surveillance:
- The Conversation (1974)
- The Matrix (1999)
- Eagle Eye (2008)
- V for Vendetta (2005)
- The Lives of Others (2006)
- Person of Interest (2011-2016)
- Bourne Series (2002-2016)
- Equilibrium (2002)
- THX 1138 (1971)
- The Prisoner (1967-1968)
- State of Play (2009)
- The X-Files (1993-2018)
- Twilight Zone (Various)
13 more surveillance movies and shows
1. The Conversation (1974)
If Nineteen Eighty-Four is considered the grandfather of surveillance fiction, then Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation is the grandfather of surveillance fiction in film. Gene Hackman stars as Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who is adept at wire-tapping and is fiercely protective of his privacy. His apartment is sparse, as is his work space, and he only makes phone calls using pay phones.
Caul and his associates are tasked, by their client, to monitor and record the conversation between a couple as they walk through a public plaza. Upon filtering through the recordings, Caul becomes increasingly concerned with its contents and faces a crisis of conscience in whether or not to ultimately deliver the tapes to his client.
Issues of surveillance and ethics are at the forefront of The Conversation and invite the audience to consider the morality of spying on fellow civilians.
Interestingly, The Conversation serves as a thematic precursor to Enemy of the State, which tackles similar themes and also stars Gene Hackman.
2. The Matrix (1999)
In 1999, a film came out that was so strange, so unlike anything that came before it, so unexpected that it virtually (pun…intended?) took the world by storm. The Matrix is an artful blend of esotericism, philosophy, gnosticism, comparative mythology, wuxia kung fu films, John Woo Hong Kong-style gun fu, and cyberpunk thriller. It also managed to balance inspiration from The Invisibles, Akira, and Ghost in the Shell. In the years since its release, it has influenced countless science fiction films and series.
The story follows programmer Thomas A. Anderson—better known by his hacker alias Neo—and his quest to unravel the meaning behind utterances of the phrase: “the Matrix.” Neo meets with a mysterious hacker named Trinity, who reveals that a man named Morpheus can shed light onto the true nature of the Matrix.
Upon meeting Morpheus, Neo is presented with two options: a red pill that will show him the truth, and a blue pill that will allow him to go back to his life—he chooses the former. What follows is a complete deconstruction of the very fabric of reality as Neo comes to discover that his entire life has taken place inside of a huge computer simulation designated as “the Matrix”.
In reality, it is in fact the late 21st century and humanity has lost a war that took place over 200 years prior against a race of sentient machines. Humans had permanently blackened the skies in an attempt to limit machine access to solar energy. In retaliation, the machines began enslaving and harvesting humans for bioelectric power; raising them in pods, and connecting their minds to a shared computer simulation to live out the full course of their lives. Denizens of the simulation are constantly monitored and surveilled by Agents—security programs with the Matrix that look and act like g-men, whose primary function is to ensure that everything in the simulation runs smoothly.
No thought nor action performed by a human goes unseen by the machines. That couldn’t happen in real life, right?
2. Eagle Eye (2008)
Jerry Shaw, played by Shia LaBeouf, receives news that his twin brother Ethan, a USAF officer, has been killed. After the funeral, Shaw discovers that a significant amount of money has been deposited into his account and that his apartment has been filled with an assortment of illegal items. He then receives a mysterious phone call from an anonymous woman that warns him of an impending raid by the FBI and advises that he abscond immediately. Elsewhere, mother Rachel Holloman receives a call from the same anonymous woman. Holloman’s son is being threatened should the demands of the anonymous woman not be met.
What follows is a high stakes cat-and-mouse game to catch out the mysterious caller, revelations of an autonomous mass surveillance system, and governmental secrets.
During production of the film, LaBeouf was told several chilling facts about mass surveillance by a consulting FBI Agent. Of note: vehicles could be remotely controlled or shut off, microphones in home security systems could be used to monitor citizens, and that one in five calls made in the U.S. were recorded—which was promptly demonstrated to LaBeouf with the recording of a phone call that he made two years prior to filming. Perhaps the most chilling fact is that Eagle Eye was made a full five years before Snowden’s NSA leaks.
3. V for Vendetta (2005)
V for Vendetta is a groundbreaking graphic novel written by Alan Moore. Originally published as a serial in the now defunct anthology known as Warrior between 1982 and 1989, the saga was eventually published internationally as a series of trade paperbacks under the DC Comics imprint Vertigo in 1988 and 1989. The story was eventually adapted for the silver screen in 2005 thanks to director James McTeigue under the watchful eye of the Wachowskis.
While the film and its source material fundamentally share the same DNA, they are markedly different pieces of literature. Notoriously resistant to theatrical adaptations of his work, Moore denounced the Warner Bros. movie and had his name removed from the writing credits of the final film and refused any royalties. For the purposes of this article, we will focus entirely on the film.
Set in the late 2020s, the UK is ruled over by the Norsefire Party, a Nordic supremacist totalitarian neo-fascist police state. This is following a global war that fractured the U.S. and a pandemic that has swept through Europe. Citizens are tightly controlled and heavily monitored by several arms of the government:
- The “Finger”: Britain’s secret police
- The “Nose”: New Scotland Yard and Minister of Investigations
- The “Ear”: The audio-surveillance division
- The “Eye”: The visual-surveillance division
- The “Mouth: The propaganda division
The story follows Evey, an employee at the British Television Network, who after being attacked by members of the Finger is rescued by the enigmatic “V.” Donning a Guy Fawkes mask and draped in black garb, V is a freedom fighter seeking to undermine and ultimately overthrow Norsefire’s stranglehold on the population.
At its core, the film is a story on the uphill battle for free speech and identity within a fascistic society and draws imagery from Nineteen Eighty-Four and WW2-era Germany. Themes of oppression, eugenics, homophobia, and nationalism permeate the dystopian world of the film and serve as a basis for Norsefire’s surveillance state.
4. The Lives of Others (2006)
Set in 1980s Communist East Germany prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the film follows Gerd Wiesler, a Stasi (State security) captain with the secret police who is tasked with monitoring a playwright, Georg Dreyman, and his lover, Christa-Maria Sieland. As it turns out, the Minister of Culture is obsessed with Siedland and placed the request to have Dreyman monitored. Like Caul in The Conversation, Wiesler grows increasingly uncomfortable both with the information he discovers and the actions of those who have authorized the surveillance.
The film is known for its accuracy in recreating the look and feel of Communist-era East Germany through the use of actual Stasi equipment and locations. Further, property master Klaus Spielhagen was imprisoned by the Stasi for two years in the 1980s and aimed to bring that experience to the production of the film.
Along with The Conversation, The Lives of Others was one of two films mentioned by film historian Carrie Rickey as being historically significant in light of Edward Snowden’s 2013 leaks about global surveillance.
5. Person of Interest (2011-2016)
Created by Jonathan Nolan (Westworld, The Dark Knight, Interstellar) and produced by J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost, Fringe), Person of Interest is a procedural series with a science fiction twist that follows former CIA agent John Reese, played by Jim Caviezel, and reclusive billionaire computer programmer Harold Finch, played by Michael Emerson.
Finch has developed a program called “The Machine” which is designed to collect and organize information on citizens in order to provide insights into crimes before they take place. Not unlike Minority Report, this brings in questions on the ethics of arresting and prosecuting people for something that hasn’t happened yet.
In a strange case of life imitating art, the penultimate episode of the first season told the story of a young NSA whistleblower who uncovers a massive domestic surveillance program on the citizens of the U.S. and sets out to bring this news to the world. If that sounds suspiciously a lot like the story of Edward Snowden, you’re not the only one to think so. The difference being that this took place over a year before Snowden’s leaks. Unsurprisingly, the writers were a little more than perturbed at the coincidence.
6. Bourne series (2002-2016)
Often described as the American James Bond, the Bourne series of films—loosely based on the Robert Ludlum series of novels—follows the saga of Jason Bourne, a secret ops specialist who finds himself in a state of amnesia, desperately seeking to regain his true identity.
Over the course of the saga: The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), and Jason Bourne (2016), Bourne unravels the secrets behind his memory loss through a series of tense encounters with a variety of antagonists—the most prominent of which being the CIA itself. At every turn, Bourne must thwart the complex and powerful systems of surveillance utilized by his pursuers.
It turns out that Bourne is David Webb, a military captain that volunteered for an experimental CIA program that turned him into the perfect weapon. Upon completion of said program, he was then given the identity of Jason Bourne. On a mission that went awry, Bourne was shot and woke up in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with amnesia.
What’s notable about the methods and tools that Bourne employs in his journey can be used by absolutely anyone. This was done by design in contrast to spies like James Bond who have access to specialised weapons for specific situations.
What can we say? That’s Jason Bourne.
7. Equilibrium (2002)
Following the devastating effects of a third world war, the totalitarian city-state of Libria is established by survivors. Human emotions are blamed for the outbreak of the war and citizens are now subject to daily doses of a substance called Prozium II which has been designed to entirely suppress any emotions. Those who refuse the doses of Prozium II are designated as “sense offenders.” Libria is governed by the Tetragrammaton Council and its laws are enforced by an elite police force known as the Grammaton Clerics.
Equilibrium stars a pre-Batman Christian Bale as John Preston, a Cleric whose wife was executed before the film began for being a Sense Offender. At the beginning of the film, Preston accidentally breaks a dosage of Prozium II and slowly begins to experience emotion again.
Over the course of the film, Preston begins working with an underground resistance movement and their efforts to dismantle the power structures that preside over the citizens of Libria.
Equilibrium looks and feels like a mixture of Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Matrix, Fahrenheit 451, and Brave New World—and is, thus, right at home on this list.
8. THX 1138 (1971)
San Francisco, in the distant future…
Long before George Lucas found success with Star Wars, his debut film THX 1138 was released to little fanfare in the summer of 1971. Set in a dystopian future where reproduction and sexual intercourse is forbidden, and citizen behaviour is controlled through the use of mood-altering substances. Workers don all white uniforms and sport shaved heads in order to enforce homogeneity, whereas androids wear black, and members of the clergy wear robes. Citizens are nameless, and are instead assigned a combination of three letters and four numbers—hence our protagonist’s designation THX 1138.
Like other dystopian stories, the lives of the characters in THX 1138 are tightly monitored and controlled. Citizens work by day, administer their mood-altering medication, and watch hologram broadcasts at night—all of which are designed to keep them functional yet pacified. Stepping outside of the boundaries of this regiment is strictly prohibited and can result in incarceration. Nobody, anywhere, is free.
There are quite a few similarities between THX 1138 and Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, which makes it a solid entry into the speculative dystopian film catalogue. Hey, at least this entry has had a long lasting cultural legacy as the namesake for the far more recognizable THX high-fidelity audio standard. Not much we can say for Howard the Duck eh, George?
9. The Prisoner (1967-1968)
Watch the pilot here:
Despite its short run of only 17 episodes, The Prisoner left a long lasting impact on both British and American audiences alike. The story follows an unnamed man—later dubbed Number Six—who after resigning his post as a secret agent, is abducted and relocated to a recreation of his home in a strange coastal town known as “The Village.” Denizens of the Village are seemingly able to roam free but are closely monitored by a series of high tech security systems. Denizens also do not have numbers, but are assigned numbers.
We don’t want to give too much else away about The Prisoner as the entire series is available to stream free here at ShoutFactoryTV so do yourself a favor and fire it up!
As an aside, two Iron Maiden tracks were directly inspired by the series: The Prisoner from The Number of the Beast (1982) and Back in the Village from Powerslave (1984).
10. State of Play (2009)
A remake of the 2003 British mini-series of the same name, State of Play stars Russell Crowe as Cal McAffrey, a journalist investigating the suspicious circumstances behind the death of Sonia Baker, the mistress of Congressman Stephen Collins, played by Ben Affleck.
Following a series of strange deaths, including the aforementioned Baker, McAffrey’s investigation takes him deep into a web of corporate intrigue, military secrets, blackmail, and illegal surveillance—all in the name of profits from black ops mercenary activities.
Director Kevin Macdonald has gone on record as saying that the film was inspired by similar thrillers from the 1970s, and the 1976 film All the President’s Men about the Watergate scandal as being of particular focus. In drawing inspiration from that source, Macdonald aimed at portraying Crowe’s McAffrey in the same vein as Watergate investigators Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward in their dangerous quest for truth in bringing illegal surveillance to light.
11. The X-Files (1993 – 2018)
During its initial run, The X-Files went from a small blip on the ratings radar to becoming one of the most influential franchises of all time. Created by Chris Carter in the early 1990s, the series made its debut in the fall of 1993 starring the then unknown Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny as Special Agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder respectively. Initially touted as a bla bla bla, the program became an international sensation that led to 11 seasons spanning 25 years, two feature length films, several video games, comic books, novels, television spin-offs, and a memorable crossover episode with The Simpsons.
Unlike anything else available at the time, The X-Files was a cross-section of science fiction, horror, police procedural, and dramedy. (Let’s be fair though, without Twin Peaks, The X-Files wouldn’t exist.) While it had its share of monster of the week format episodes across its run, The X-Files is perhaps most known for its main series arc involving extraterrestrials, supernatural phenomena, and, you guessed it: government surveillance. In the mythos of the show, the shadow government—known as the Syndicate—have their tendrils in various factions of powerful groups including the CIA, the NSA, and the U.S. Defense Department. Running all manner of black projects, all the while keeping tabs on the general population and on Agent Mulder’s continued efforts to expose their inner workings.
Following a 14 year hiatus from the small screen, and eight years from the silver screen, Scully and Mulder returned to television for the tenth season of the program in 2016 thanks to…Edward Snowden? Chris Carter credits Snowden’s revelations about NSA spying with the re-opening of The X-Files. With the general public more attuned to the mass surveillance undertaken by governments across the globe, Carter felt that it was time to bring our favorite FBI agents back from hibernation. Carter lamented that since the original run of the series ended in 2002, the rights of U.S. citizens were signed away with the passing of the Patriot Act and that “no one seems to care.”
The truth is out there…
12. Twilight Zone (Various)
A pioneer of the science-fiction and horror anthology series, The Twilight Zone has been so influential that without it shows like The Outer Limits, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, or Black Mirror wouldn’t exist. This dystopian franchise has seen various iterations over a 60 year period that include 4 incarnations of the television series , one theatrical film, one made-for-TV film, stage plays, radio series, comic books, video games, and a theme park attraction.
The format is familiar and simple, each episode opens with a narration setting the scene. While innocuous at first, stories usually take a sinister turn before a final twist reveal—often written like fables in order to demonstrate a particular social lesson.
Here are a few select episodes that are noteworthy for their stories on surveillance:
The Obsolete Man (Original series, Season 2, Episode 29)
In a futuristic totalitarian fascistic state—phew, there’s a lot of these in this list—librarian Rodney Wordsworth is deemed to be obsolete due to his penchant for books, which have been outlawed, and his belief in God, which is seen as archaic. He is sentenced, by the powers that be, to be executed. Wordsworth is given a choice as to the execution method and requests A) a personal assassin, who will be the only person to know his cause of death, and B) for his death to be televised live on television for the world to see. Grab your popcorn!
Special Service (80s series, Season 3, Episode 27)
While preparing for his day one morning, John Selig’s bathroom mirror falls askew revealing a concealed video camera. A handyman, Archie, hurriedly arrives to rectify this, but with such a sense of nonchalance that it disturbs Selig. Through conversing with Archie, Selig gains the distinct impression that the handyman knows more than he is letting on. This one has The Truman Show written all over it!
To See the Invisible Man (80s series, Season 1, Episode 16)
Mitchell Chaplin is deemed to be socially and emotionally dysfunctional and is thus sentenced to be “invisible” for a period of 12 months. Chaplin is implanted with a chip which warns others not to engage with him over the course of his sentence. Not unlike the Black Mirror “White Christmas” episode but far less depressing.
Thank for taking this trip with us…into the Twilight Zone.
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