Jump to: Spoilers (4)
When Martin (Robert Redford) and Cosmo (Sir Ben Kingsley) attempt their initial prank at the beginning of the movie, the façade building seen is the famous Hill Valley clock tower from the Back to the Future (1985) trilogy.
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Professor Len Adleman is one of the three mathematicians who invented the RSA (he's the "A") cryptosystem, currently the preeminent method of encrypting any form of data in the world. Adleman served as a mathematical consultant on this movie, and spent several days constructing the slides Janek (Donal Logue) displays at the college symposium on "unbreakable codes" (which took Adleman a considerable amount of time to create using primitive early 1990s computer graphics technology). In the end, writer and director Phil Alden Robinson had the slides transposed as oil crayon scribbles, on account of the notion that "That's what a regular mathematician would have done." Adleman later remarked that this was indeed true, and what he would have done, and would have saved him days if only he'd known.
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While picking through Dr. Brandes' (Stephen Tobolowsky's) trash, Mother (Dan Aykroyd) holds up a folded box of "Cap'n Crunch". In the 1970s, "Cap'n Crunch" came with a small whistle in the box. A "phone phreaker" called "Captain Crunch" (John Draper) discovered that this whistle could be used to get free phone calls (one of many components in the practice of "phone phreaking", which digital phone switching-systems has made almost totally obsolete). There is another reference to Draper during the Scrabble game (the word "CRUNCH" is visible upside down before it gets turned into SCRUNCHY). Also, Cosmo (Sir Ben Kingsley) tells Martin (Robert Redford) that, while in prison, he helped some Mafia men to make some "free telephone calls." Whistler (David Strathairn) is patterned after Joe Engressia, a blind telephone expert born with perfect pitch who was one of the original phone phreakers.
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The computer in the room off of Cosmo's (Sir Ben Kingsley's) office in the PlayTronics building (the one that looks like a circular bench) is actually a Cray Y-MP, a multi-million dollar supercomputer that was one of the worlds fastest computers at the time this movie was made.
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Bernard Abbott (James Earl Jones) was named after Robert Abbott, a charismatic Technical Consultant for this movie. In addition to being about the same age and complexion as Jones, Bob designed the first time-sharing (multi-user) operating system for the Control Data Corporation CDC-6600, the predecessor of the Cray Y-MP seen in the movie. He is also often referred to as the "Father of Information Security" by seasoned veterans of the computing industry.
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One of the reasons River Phoenix (Carl) took the role was because he was so deep into the "psychosis" of his character in his previous movie (Mike Waters in My Own Private Idaho (1991)) that he wanted "a low stress money gig" movie, which for him was this movie.
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To prevent the project from being thought of as a kids' movie, by being rated G, Phil Alden Robinson intentionally added profanity to the script.
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The movie deals with the impact of a factoring breakthrough on encryption, a reference to the RSA algorithm, the most popular public-key encryption algorithm in use today. Professor Len Adleman, one of the co-inventors of the RSA algorithm, provided some technical guidance on this movie in exchange for giving his wife a chance to meet Robert Redford.
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In Three Days of the Condor (1975) starring Robert Redford, a CIA building is hit and a list of the casualties is displayed. The final two names on the list being Martin and Bishop, which is Redford's alias in this movie.
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Dan Aykroyd (Mother) wears a t-shirt bearing the name "Aleka's Attic", a band formed by River Phoenix (Carl).
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In an article he wrote for 'Slate' in 2012, Stephen Tobolowsky recalled that while shooting on the Universal Studios lot, he saw Robert Redford and James Earl Jones pass unnoticed in front of a tour bus. Dozens of tourists instead snapped photos of inanimate attractions such as the bike from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and the shark from Jaws (1975).
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In 2012, the on-line magazine Slate published a series of articles about this movie commemorating the twentieth anniversary of its release. These included a piece by Stephen Tobolowsky (Dr. Werner Brandes), in which he said, "I can't remember having so much fun on a movie."
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At the end, the character "Mary" (Amy Benedict) gives "Carl" (River Phoenix) her phone number as 415-273-9164. It is a San Francisco area code and one of the rare instances in moves and television where an actual phone number rather than a "555" number is used.
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Mother wears a t-shirt from the Kingston, Ontario-based band The Tragically Hip, who Dan Aykroyd loves and promotes. He had them as his musical guests on an episode of Saturday Night Live (1975) that he hosted.
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When Whistler (David Strathairn) and Mother (Dan Aykroyd) break into the air traffic control computer, the map displayed is part of the actual airspace above the San Francisco Bay Area. Groups of five letters are airspace fixes and groups of three are airports.
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When Liz (Mary McDonnell) goes to the Dim Sum bar with Werner Brandes (Stephen Tobolowsky) under the assumed name of Doris, there is a group of singers singing the song "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" in Chinese. In the English version of the song, Leroy Brown gets in trouble over a girl named Doris.
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The cast includes three Oscar winners: Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, and Sir Ben Kingsley; and five Oscar nominees: Dan Aykroyd, David Strathairn, River Phoenix, James Earl Jones, and Mary McDonnell.
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Martin (Robert Redford) avoids being arrested because he's out getting a pizza. In Three Days of the Condor (1975), Joseph Turner (Robert Redford) avoids getting murdered because he's out getting sandwiches.
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The orange Volkswagen Karmann Ghia convertible driven by Robert Redford in the Embarcadero area ("The Handoff" scene) is the same vehicle driven by Mike Myers in So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993), also filmed in San Francisco.
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When breaking into Cosmo's (Sir Ben Kingsley's) office, Martin (Robert Redford) uses a Ronco "Pocket Fisherman" to lower a needed high tech device.
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First credited role of Donal Logue on a theatrical film.
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The access code entered at the beginning of the movie ends in 1138, most likely in reference to George Lucas' first movie, THX 1138 (1971).
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An important line in this movie, is "too many secrets", the same line is repeated twice by John Lithgow at the end of The Manhattan Project (1986), expressing a similar sentiment about government control of science and technology.
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The warehouse set, in which the characters are having a party after getting the device, is modelled on the set of the warehouse party in The Conversation (1974).
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Once they have identified Janek's little black box in his office, Mother (Dan Aykroyd) is fitting Bishop (Robert Redford) with a hidden microphone and earpiece while in the van. Mother praises the quality of the microphone and observes that it's the same one "that N.A.S.A. used when they faked the Apollo moon landings. The astronauts broadcast around the world from a soundstage at Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino, California." The Aerospace Audiovisual Service (A.A.V.S.) soundstage at Norton Air Force Base, San Bernardino, California is where U.S. Air Force Captain Phil Alden Robinson cut his teeth as a television producer and director in the mid 1970s.
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Writer and director Phil Alden Robinson once did an internship at WRGB-TV in Niskayuna, New York. As a favor, he has former WRGB news anchor Ernie Tetrault cast as the news anchor in this movie.
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James Earl Jones, Timothy Busfield, and Lee Garlington appeared in Phil Alden Robinson's Field of Dreams (1989).
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The 7 major characters of the movie (Robert Redford, Sidney Portier, Ben Kingsley, Dan Ackroyd, Mary McDonnell, River Phoenix, and David Stathairin) are all either Oscar Winners or Oscar Nominees. Robert Redford, Sidney Portier and Ben Kingsley are Oscar recipients. The others are all nominees.
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River Phoenix (Carl) and Sidney Poitier (Crease) starred in another espionage movie, Little Nikita (1988).
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When Martin (Robert Redford) and Liz (Mary McDonnell) are playing Scrabble, Liz objects to Martin's word "scrunchy", claiming it's not a real word. In fact, the word "scrunchy" came into usage sometime between 1985 and 1990, as a term for an elastic band used to hold women's ponytails in place. Liz wears her hair very short, so it's entirely possible she wasn't aware of a new word like that.
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Janes Earl Jones says "what's important is that this never happened." He says nearly the same thing in The Hunt For Red October.
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Phil Alden Robinson graduated from Union College in Schenectady, New York. Union College is used as the backdrop for the college scene, at the beginning of the movie.
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The term commonly used to describe "information phishing" (for example, trying to get a person to divulge his or her password) as applied by hackers, is Social Engineering.
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The fictional Coolidge Institute, located in Palo Alto, California, is a reference to the Hoover Institute on the Stanford campus in Palo Alto. However, the Hoover Institute is more of a political policy think tank, and Stanford's SRI is more similar in its nature.
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The only movie featuring David Strathairn and Mary McDonnell that was not directed by John Sayles. They appeared in Matewan (1987) and Passion Fish (1992).
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Cosmo (Sir Ben Kingsley) is reminiscent, both by appearance and by the name, of club owner Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara) in John Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976).
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James Craven is billed in the credits as "FBI Agent". His character introduces himself as "Special Agent Bestrop". Juel Bestrop was the casting director for this movie.
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The bridge they work out that Martin crossed while in the trunk of the car is the Dumbarton.
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Robert Redford and Ben Kingsley would both go onto to play villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Redford played Alexander Pierce in 2014 Captain America Winter Soldier. Ben Kingsley played the Mandarin/ Trevor Slattery in 2013 Iron Man Three.
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The first five minutes of the movie contains a flashback that takes place in 1969. The rest of the movie takes place sometime in the 1990s.
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The robot dog owned by Dr. Brandes (Stephen Tobolowsky) is named "Pooch". Probably named after Stephen Tobolowsky's infamous real dog mentioned in his podcast, "The Tobolowsky Files".
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The security guard at the beginning of the movie (after the flashback) is watching Touch of Evil (1958). In the brief scene shown on-screen, Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) says, "I just looked in that box. There was nothing there." This is a very subtle giveaway and reference to how the finale plays out on the Playtronics roof, when Bishop (Robert Redford) hands the box over to Cosmo (Sir Ben Kingsley).
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In Blindfold (1965), Dr. Snow's (Rock Hudson's) kidnappers drive him past a lake with a gaggle of geese nearby. He later thinks this was the sound of the guests at a cocktail party, until he retraces his route, and discovers the actual source of the sounds. This idea was borrowed by Phil Alden Robinson when Martin (Robert Redford) is kidnapped, blindfolded, and also thinks the sound of the geese he passed were people at a cocktail party.
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Robert Redford appeared in the Sting in 1973 with Robert Earl Jones. James Earl Jones, son of Robert Earl Jones, appears in this movie also with Robert Redford.
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The code spewing on the screen, reflected in Whistler's glasses for effect, as Mother accesses connections in the Black Box is ~twelve lines of repeating gibberish except for the entries "mnop=fred/14cb", "ploo", and "123". "[des]" appears, as well as "cap=dw". These cryptic references may be meaningful. These are cryptography references.
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