The Best Part of the 'Artemis Fowl' Books Is the Hilariously Dated Tech
The child criminal's machinery is state-of-the-art… if you're from 2001.
Well, folks, after nearly 20 years of contract negotiations, development hell, a barn full of prospective directors, script overhauls, and the dreaded, meddling hands of a certain ex-producer whose name starts with W and ends with einstein, the Artemis Fowl movie adaptation has finally been unceremoniously released, accompanied by an earthy fart noise, on Disney+. The movie is utterly terrible, crunching together action plots plucked at random from multiple Artemis Fowl books with exposition that's as lengthy as it is confusing and completely overhauling the emotional center of the character it's based on, and that's as much as I'm going to talk about it in this piece. Because I want to talk about something that's actually good: The books this movie is based on, which commandeered the minds of a very specific mid-millennial sub-generation, regaling us with visions of underground magical utopias, invisible enforcers of the tenuous bond between humans and fairies, and the highest of hi-tech gadgets one child criminal uses for his evil schemes.
Except, those hi-tech gadgets read a little differently if you happen to revisit the books a few years after the turn of the millennium. For those of us living in 2020, where pocket-sized telephones with hundreds of gigabytes of storage and flatscreen wall-mounted televisions that play movies on 4,000 pixels are part of the everyday, young Artemis' armory of state-of-the-art equipment becomes a delightful time capsule, recalling an era when simply entering data into a Macintosh was a sign of wealth and power.
The first book in particular, which was published by Eoin Colfer in 2001, spends a lot of time lovingly describing the "laser disks" and "plasma screens" that make up our dueling heroes' arsenals. In the book's first chapter, Colfer dedicates an entire paragraph to a character taking photographs of the pages of a book on a "compact digital camera," storing the photos on a "chip," transferring it all to a "portable phone," and finally sending it by "e-mail" to a more secure computer. The kind of thing that we could instantaneously Airdrop to any data-enabled device around us takes considerably more attention and care.
What makes the books such fun to read is the confidence with which Colfer describes technology that feels ancient to us now, but was so futuristic back when the books were published and the thought of carrying the World Wide Web in our pocket seemed like science fiction. (The first iPhone didn't come out until 2007.) In a pre-Internet of Things era where things weren't all just touchscreens hooked up to ethereal Wi-Fi, technology was more tactile, requiring miles of "fiber optic cables" and a "series of networked AppleMacs" to launch a criminal enterprise. The start of Book 2, The Arctic Incident, features our antihero having to use a "portable computer" to watch a video that was emailed to him as an "MPG file," unable to be processed on his mobile phone.
Even buying things "over the Internet" was such a novel concept that it's given its own paragraph. The fey folk, whose technology is supposedly years beyond our own, upload their video files onto "laser disks" and use guns powered by "nuclear batteries" (which, actually, humanity has only just caught up with in the past five years). A villain in the second book is basically mailed an iPad filled with instructions, which appears as a little black box with a video screen, "like a portable CD player."
Artemis Fowl was published in 2001, a year after the second Mission: Impossible movie, a year before Disney's Kim Possible began airing, and the same year that brought us the first Spy Kids and Cartoon Network's Charlie's Angels riff Totally Spies. Matthew Broderick's Inspector Gadget reboot came out in 1999. At the turn of the millennium, everything was spies and gadgets as we looked toward the future's promise of another Space Age technological boom. And we got what we predicted: In less than two decades, phones became smaller, computers became faster, and access to the Internet is nearly (or should be) considered a basic human right. Artemis Fowl represents a time before social media was something to use with caution, before technology's dark side was revealed. Back then, a machine that you could hold in the palm of your hand was something novel and exciting, even when used for a child criminal mastermind's most dastardly plots.
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