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How Realistic Is the CES Depicted in ‘Jason Bourne’?

A frame-by-frame analysis

(Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration)
(Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration)

This week, hundreds of thousands of people have gathered in Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show. In its 50 years of existence, the convention has evolved into a kind of snake pit of capitalism, famous for its endless expanse of gadget demos, “booth babes,” celebrity hostages, and oft-cringey company announcements. For tech vendors, it’s a chance to fight for some press. For execs, it’s an excuse to schmooze over a very expensive steak dinner. And for journalists (like, ahem, a few of us from The Ringer), it’s a headache-inducing Rainbow Road cluttered with a few gems and a whole lot of banana peels.

Despite its massive size and ridiculousness, CES has remained relatively unexplored in pop culture. But thanks to last year’s Jason Bourne, the convention finally earned a little exposure. The (very bad) film’s denouement takes place at a Vegas “cyber convention” called “Exocon” that Bourne and his numerous enemies/allies proceed to bulldoze in their quests to kill one another. Exocon is obviously fictional, and — based on a few fleeting references to its focus on InfoSec — could be based on hacker-centric conventions like Black Hat or DEF CON. But considering CES is the original and largest annual tech conference in the world, for our purposes here, we will assume that’s where Bourne producers drew their inspiration.

So, how accurate was their depiction of the convention? And will it finally help normals understand the consumerism and loathing of this yearly tradition? Here is a frame-by-frame investigation.

(Universal Pictures)
(Universal Pictures)

Before we even make it to Vegas, there are plenty of warning signs that technological accuracy is not a top priority of the Bourne franchise. Exhibit 1: this USB stick that contains, according to CIA cybersecurity agent Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), the biggest leak of government files since Snowden. For this reason, it is apparently labeled with the word “ENCRYPTED,” just so we know it’s extra-important and secretive and hard to decode. Thank you for guiding us with such subtle clues, Bourne props staff. For this weird and highly unlikely choice, -1 point.

(Universal Pictures)
(Universal Pictures)

OK, now fast-forward to the last 30 minutes of the movie, when we arrive in Las Vegas. This is, in fact, an aerial shot of the desert casino oasis/inferno (+2 points).

(Universal Pictures)
(Universal Pictures)

The scene in which Matt Damon arrives at McCarran International Airport is actually McCarran Airport (+3 points). But McCarran is inaccurately depicted as modern and sleek. This year will be my fourth time flying into McCarran, and I can tell you it’s neither of those things. It’s filled with noisy slot machines, a Cinnabon, and a Brighton Collectibles store. When CES attendees arrived this year, they were likely greeted by this abandoned Costco-sized container of Macadamia nuts (-2 points, for inaccurate sleekness).

(Universal Pictures)
(Universal Pictures)

We soon learn that the convention in question is taking place at the Aria, a relatively new, high-end hotel on the strip. Though the Aria is a lovely place to stay, it has never hosted the main CES exhibitor’s floor, DEF CON, or Black Hat (-5 points). I suspect that its conference hall, however eco-friendly, pales in comparison to CES’s monstrous vendor hive: the Las Vegas Convention and World Trade Center. I should also note that Bourne unrealistically took a cab to the hotel without getting caught in any traffic or cab lines (-2 points).

(Universal Pictures)
(Universal Pictures)

At Lee’s arrival, we get the first peak of the Aria lobby, which is decked out in towering flower arrangements and at least seven Exocon signs, for some reason. It’s pretty rare to see plants or animals of any kind on the convention floor, unless a company happens to be demoing — I kid you not — a smart flowerpot. That being said, hotels typically deck their lobbies in florals at the start of January for the Chinese New Year. Sometimes that means CES signage appears next to carnation arrangements. Though the number of Exocon signs in this scene seems excessive, the Chinese New Year accents make up for it. (+1 point).

(Universal Pictures)
(Universal Pictures)

As Lee is checking in, we get our first close-up of an Exocon extra (on the left). It’s a white dude wearing a patterned button-down shirt, thick-rimmed glasses, and subtle sideburns. Could he be a journalist? A startup founder? A Vice executive? We’ll never know, but I assure you I have seen many versions of this person at CES (+3 points).

(Universal Pictures)
(Universal Pictures)

The Exocon convention floor features a large inflatable rubber duck, and is lined with needy vendors and packed with hordes of badge-branded attendees looking confused. Seems right (+5 points).

(Universal Pictures)
(Universal Pictures)

When Deep Dream CEO Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) arrives at the hotel, he takes a stroll through the convention floor, then heads up to the room where he’ll be doing a symposium. Swaths of starstruck onlookers attempt to capture the moment with their smartphones. I saw the same level of fanfare when Tim Cook wandered into the crowd at Apple’s developer’s conference last year (+1 point), but someone like Kalloor — who is billed to be a Mark Zuckerberg–esque figure — would never voluntarily suffocate on the CES convention floor (-3 points). Vegas was built with much more covert ways to transport its more privileged guests.

(Universal Pictures)
(Universal Pictures)

After less than two hours in Las Vegas, Bourne is able to access the convention floor without a badge (-2 points), and navigate it with ease (-3 points) to arrive at a vendor booth showing off a gadget that fits his immediate needs (-4 points). If that ruthless spy/assassin thing doesn’t work out for him, he may have a future in tech journalism.

(Universal Pictures)
(Universal Pictures)

Then there’s the “dart tags,” another convenient gadget that he uses to track the head of the CIA (Tommy Lee Jones), who he wants to kill (duh). There’s a bowl of them just sitting there for people to take, which means that these things are incredibly cheap and gimmicky. And yet: There are no follow-up scenes in which Bourne spends a frustrating 15 minutes attempting to establish a Bluetooth connection between his gadget and his phone (-10 points).

(Universal Pictures)
(Universal Pictures)

In his extremely lucky Exocon streak, Bourne also picks up a really nice embroidered hat. Swag at CES is never this nice. It’s typically lanyards and corporate-branded USB sticks (-1 point). Let’s just say I felt blessed when I got an external battery two years ago.

(Universal Pictures)
(Universal Pictures)

Exocon’s screen time comes to an end during the final scene of a “symposium” between the director of the CIA and Kalloor. The massive crowd, the futuristic, blue accent lighting, and the moderator in jeans and tennis shoes are all very CES-y (+3 points). Alas, these large press conferences are during the beginning of CES, before the floor has opened, so having both going on at the same time doesn’t really line up (-1 point).

(Universal Pictures)
(Universal Pictures)

Also, the demographic makeup of the crowd is extra generous to the tech industry, especially considering all the recent reports that efforts to recruit more women and minorities into the industry are faltering (-1 point). If we’re being realistic, there’d be like 20 percent more white dudes.

I suppose the ENCRYPTED USB stick was a foreshadowing of a less-than-perfect, -17 point score. Hollywood has yet to fully capture the essence of CES. But kudos, Bourne franchise, for trying.