8 security hits and misses on the silver screen

Security has played a bigger role in cinema than you may think

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Physical security has played a big role in movies, often setting the scene for an elaborate heist, break-in, or robbery. Here are some of the notable physical security measures that have been laid out on the big screen, from effective and realistic to hapless and implausible.

mission impossible
of Paramount Pictures

Mission: Impossible

This is arguably the best-known physical security system in cinema. Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt, looking to steal the top secret NOC list from a computer in CIA headquarters, needs to find a way to get past just about everything but the kitchen sink: the room where the files are kept is protected by alarms that are triggered by any noise above a whisper, any contact made with the floor, and any increase in temperature beyond a single degree.

While it's exceedingly unlikely that any room would be equipped with such alarms, the methods used to protect conventional access to the vault are far more realistic. A six digit code, dual electronic keycards, and biometrics, including a retinal scan and voice recognition, are all used to gain access to the room.

The solution? Hunt gains access through an air duct in the ceiling and, suspended from a harness, hacks into the computer and steals the list. Though the whole harness bit is not particularly realistic, the real red flag is when Hunt uses some kind of magical (i.e. completely unexplained) device to block the trip lasers that guard the vent before removing it and being lowered into the room.

dark knight
of Warner Bros. Pictures

The Dark Knight

The very first scene of this movie focuses on a bank heist in downtown Gotham, and for all of the security measures in place, they are thwarted with relative ease by a team of goons led by the Joker.

First, a team of two ziplines to the roof of the bank from a building across the street in order to gain access to the building's silent alarm system, which they easily disable with the snip of a wire. Meanwhile, two more robbers begin to drill into the bank's vault, which they soon discovered is electrified when one of them receives a massive shock. The obstacle is relatively short-lived, however, as he simply puts his shoes on his hands and continues drilling.

The last line of defense?  The bank manager pulls a shotgun out from under his desk and starts firing at the bad guys. One may argue that it's unrealistic -- given that employees wouldn't be armed, but rather the bank would be protected by armed guards -- but apparently this is a mob bank, so anything goes.

oceans eleven
of Warner Bros. Pictures

Ocean's Eleven

To be fair to Terry Benedict, the man Danny Ocean robs for millions of dollars in this remake of the caper classic, he had a pretty decent security system in place: his casino vault was secured by access codes, he had video surveillance in place, and the interior of the vault was secured with trip lasers to sound an alarm should anybody touch the floor while the security system was activated. Rather, his downfall was just a matter of being sloppy and careless; in other words, the breach here was caused by human error (and a little bit of bad luck, since a "pinch" device was used to briefly knock out the casino's power and shut down a thorough grid of trip lasers Ocean needed to get past).

After being intentionally apprehended by Benedict, Ocean is left alone to ostensibly be worked over a bouncer that he is actually in cahoots with -- apparently employee background checks are unheard of at Benedict's casino -- at which point he is free to escapes through an air duct to join his team in breaching the vault. Benedict's second mistake? Allowing explosives and a particularly flexible human being to be smuggled directly into the vault via a completely uninspected cart. And then, of course, there was the fact that Benedict had vault access codes written down on a piece of paper that he was carrying in his jacket and was pickpocketed off of him by a member of Ocean's team.

Is it really all that surprising that Benedict got burned?

bourne ultimatum
of Universal Pictures

The Bourne Ultimatum

This might be the most puzzling gaffe of them all: In the third Jason Bourne movie, the titular character inexplicably walks right in and out of Controlled Resources International -- the headquarters for a CIA operation -- with no other method shown than using a back door and a service stairwell.

After luring CIA Deputy Director Noah Vosen (and apparently the better part of the building's staff) out of the building ahead of time, Bourne has uninhibited access to Vosen's office. In a slightly more involved approach than his entrance, Bourne gains access to Vosen's biometrically-locked safe containing important documents by lifting Vosen's fingerprint off of his mouse with tape.

The safe was also locked using voice recognition, but Bourne circumvented that measure by simply calling Vosen and recording him saying his name. So much for that.

scanner darkly
of Warner Independent Pictures

A Scanner Darkly

The larger premise of A Scanner Darkly is based on the Big Brother-like surveillance of the dystopian near-future. Extensive video surveillance is employed via security cameras that line the streets and peoples' homes, all of which is equipped with what proves to be effective facial recognition technology. It is, however, easily tampered with when main protagonist Bob Arctor is unwittingly given orders to spy on himself in his own home.

Why did his superiors not realize they were giving Arctor orders to spy on himself? Because Arctor, like all of the detectives in police force, wears a "scramble suit" at work. The scramble suit is made of a fabric that is constantly shifting in its outward appearance, effectively hiding Arcter's and his fellow detectives' identities for their own privacy and protection. While this is where the security measures in Scanner venture into ultra-futuristic/unrealistic territory, the premise of concealing one's identity is a familiar one. Voice modulators, masks, social engineering…the bad guys are constantly trying to hide who they really are. The difference here -- futuristic appearance-shifting suits notwithstanding -- is that now the good guys are, too.

of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer


Clearly the lowest profile movie on this list, but a couple of well-known physical security measures (and attempts to circumvent them) earned it a spot. Protagonist Milo Hoffman, working for a company called NURV, intentionally gets himself nabbed by security chief Bob Shrot as he conspicuously tailgates another employee, who was going into a restricted area of the building and had swiped his RFID badge. While Hoffman is detained in Shrot's office, a makeshift explosive that Hoffman planted in a broom closet earlier goes off. As alarms begin to wail, Shrot bolts from his office, leaving Hoffman behind, to go investigate.

Hoffman then executes his intended plan, which is to duplicate a badge -- belonging to an employee with higher access privileges than himself -- and tamper with the video surveillance watching over the mysterious "Building 21" on another part of NURV's campus. He switches out the live feed for archived feed so when he breaks into Building 21 later that night, it will appear on the monitors that all's quiet.

The embarrassing part here isn't so much that Hoffman switched the feeds and got away with it, as it is a somewhat plausible scenario (though it is unlikely that a guard even slightly paying attention wouldn't notice the he's watching archived feed). Rather, the bigger issue here is that Hoffman was left unattended in the office of the head of security after he was just caught for violating security protocol. Oh, and Shrot made sure that important security software that provides access to both badge creation and video surveillance was left open on his computer before doing so.

snatch final
of Screen Gems


This security actually held up pretty well, but that may have more to do with the hapless criminals than anything else. When Vinny and Sol attempt to rob a bookmaker's office by holding an employee up at gunpoint, she simply presses a hidden button under the counter to sound the alarm and throw up metal shutters, effectively protecting and isolating the staff.

The less realistic aspect here, of course, is that Vinny, who was leaning over the counter at the moment the shutters were thrown, is lifted up and sandwiched between the shutter and the ceiling. It also appeared that the building's doors locked when the alarm was sounded…but it is eventually revealed that Vinny and Sol were simply pushing on a pull door.

tron final
of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Tron: Legacy

The security measures in place here were admirable; really, software company Encom International did everything by the book to lock down its headquarters. The only reason that Sam Flynn is able to gain access to the building's server room is because he has a couple of seemingly magical tools at his disposal.

First, he bypasses a gigantic, reinforced security door to gain access to the building by, well, holding his phone up to it and running an application for a few seconds. There's a guard that's monitoring live video feed from a number of security cameras, but he doesn't suspect a thing since Sam uses a green laser to temporarily disable the camera (??) that would have spotted him as he ran up the stairwell.

It's okay, though, because ultimately Sam gets busted when he trips a laser entering the server room and sets off a silent alarm. The guard, armed with a taser, comes running and chases after Sam, who...outruns him and base jumps off of the building's roof.

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