Michael Mann’s techno-thriller Blackhat had already taken a beating from movie critics by the eve of its opening weekend. (Read Playboy’s own Stephen Rebello’s take here.) I haven’t seen the movie yet, but my sympathy goes out to the Heat director and the rest of his crew over all the press bashing. No matter how tangible the specter of cyberterrorism has become in our actual lives, it’s still a challenge to make the act of hacking sing in the cineplex. (Remember Swordfish when Hugh Jackman had to get a blowjob at the keyboard in order to make it look cool?) However many slick code jockeys in deep concentration and firewalls I’ve seen dramatically dismantled onscreen, I still find myself waxing nostalgic over director Iain Softley’s thoroughly ludicrous but oh-so-enjoyable 1995 film Hackers.
In Hackers, the Boy-Who-Would-Be-Sherlock, Jonny Lee Miller, plays an elite baby hacker once known as “Zero Cool” who’s been on ice since the Feds busted him for aggressively plying his trade on the stock market.
A young boy is arrested by the U.S. Secret Service for writing a computer virus and is banned from using a computer until his 18th birthday. Years later, he and his new-found friends discover a plot to unleash a dangerous computer virus, but they must use their computer skills to find the evidence while being pursued by the Secret Service and the evil computer genius behind the virus. - IMDB
What the above blurb fails to mention is that Dade’s handful of “newfound friends” includes a curve-less but nevertheless bad-ass ball-busting high school pixie named Kate, played with extreme prejudice by Angelina Jolie in one of her earliest roles. It’s Dade, now known as “Crash Override,” and Kate’s (“Acid Burn”) rivalry that gives this story its adolescent heat. As if that isn’t enough, Crash, Burn, their homies Nikon, Phantom Phreak, Cereal Killer, and all the other outrageously stylized hackers of the world become the potential fall guys in an elaborate cyber-embezzling scheme by a mysterious hacker known as “The Plague.”
I’ve seen this movie countless times, and I still have to consult Wikipedia about aspects of the plot. That’s because the plot isn’t the point. It’s the flash. Its the nicknames, the rave-y music, the pseudo-cyberpunk fashions, the inline skates. In doing the research for this piece, I came upon an article on Wired.com entitled “Is Blackhat the Greatest Hacking Movie Ever? Hackers Think So.” The article cites computer security experts praising the film for its accuracy. Blackhat may very well be spot-on with all the particulars. But take it from someone who sits in front of a computer all day typing stuff: The most accurate representation of a process may not always be the most entertaining one.
The filmmakers behind Hackers got this right off the bat and, so, filled 107 minutes of screen time with all manner of goofy tech catch phrases, angular haircuts, awesome sunglasses, dyed leather jackets, Angelina Jolie as a geek, and other time-stamped mid-‘90s nonsense that made it a spectacle upon the film’s release and a retro joy to behold so many years later.
And, let us not forget the bold performances. Miller is the right combination of dork and hipster to Jolie’s pre-Daria ice princess. Fisher Stevens is deliciously miscast as a disgruntled hacker/hipster villain on a skateboard. As the brilliantly addle-brained Cereal Killer, Matthew Lillard is at his most Matthew Lillard-ly. There’s even an appearance from The Wire’s own Wendell Pierce, a.k.a. Bunk Moreland, as the fed who just can’t seem to keep up with these hacker kids.
Hackers is hardly the most subtle film about digital espionage ever made. Some would argue, understandably, that it is just awful — but not just plain awful. Hackers strives admirably to do what movies that are essentially about data entry all must do. They try to give you something to look at other than smart people sending packets of information back and forth. They beep, buzz, and dazzle. They traffic in CGI images of glowing motherboards and data stacks that look like skyscrapers. Look at Tron. Look at The Matrix, which is probably — actually — the best movie about hacking ever made except that it evades that fact so expertly that you sometimes forget computers are even involved.