USA’s Mr. Robot is being heralded for its psychologically authentic depiction of being a hacker but it follows a long line of television shows and movies that didn’t just fail to accurately anticipate the future of technology: they tended to get everything hilariously, wildly, egregiously and entertainingly wrong. In that respect, few explorations of hackers and hacking culture got things quite as exquisitely backwards as Hackers, which is celebrating its twentieth anniversary with a deluxe Blu-Ray release from the nostalgia specialists over at Shout Factory. The people behind Hackers, God bless them, imagined that they could make the act of staring at a computer screen and pushing buttons exquisitely cinematic. They similarly imagined that they could transform computer nerds into sexy outlaws.
Some films are revered for their prescience, for their Nostradamus-like intuition about the direction the future would be headed. Hackers is notable for its remarkable lack of prescience. The filmmakers were prescient enough to realize that computers would be the future, but not prescient enough to have any sense of what that future might feel like.
In that respect, Hackers joins films like Disclosure, which fancied itself a state-of-the-art cyber-thriller on the cutting edge of advanced technology, yet seemed to think the future of computers will center on virtual reality filing cabinets. Hackers subscribes to the widespread notion, then and now, that we only have a reasonably civilized society because hackers, almost invariably of the adolescent variety, allow us. They find us foolish mortals amusing, and if they wanted to, they could unleash a virus that would make our computers explode and transform our toaster ovens into sentient monsters out to drink the blood of our children.
To really drive home that computers, and the internet, belong to the future, and to the children, Hackers opens with heavily armed feds busting into a house to take down a dangerous cyber-criminal we’re informed is such a menace that he has the power to single-handedly drive down the stock market. In a very slow reveal, we learn that the man behind all of this mayhem isn’t a man at all, but a shrimpy little Bar Mitzvah-aged boy who hacks under the name Zero Cool.
Zero Cool receives a Draconian sentence for a guy like him: he is to have no access to computers or touchstone telephones until he’s 18 years old. Rest assured, touchtone telephones (go ask your grandma what those were) figure very prominently in the film’s plot, but not as prominently as those pay phones that are such a fixture of contemporary society.
We then fast forward seven years: Zero Cool is now Dade Murphy, an 18-year-old high school kid played by Jonny Lee Miller of Elementary and *Trainspotting and briefly-Angelina Jolie’s-husband-fame who gets his jollies hacking a television station so that it shows a rerun of The Outer Limits instead of a racist, right-wing blowhard.
Hackers assumes that the audience knows as little about computers as the hapless security guard Dade manipulates by pretending to be “Eddie Vedder from accounting” who needs crucial information because “The BLT drive on my computer just went AWOL.” While hacking the television station, Zero Cool, who I am going to continue to refer to as Zero Cool because Zero Cool is just so much fun to type, our hacking hero runs up against a competing hacker who gives him a stern warning (“Acid Burn Sez Leave B 4 U R Expunged”) whose abuse of the language is seemingly designed to give Zero Cool the impression that the mysterious opposing hacker is Prince.
Zero Cool soon falls in with a band of teenaged hackers who share his deep knowledge of computers and vague anti-authoritarian principles. The makers of Hackers were clearly concerned that they would not be able to make being good at computers cool so they decided to hedge their bets by having their heroic hackers belong to seemingly every other youth subculture as well.
So the film’s motley crew of technology-adept badasses are primarily hackers but they also skateboard and roller blade, love rocking out to techno and Rage Against The Machine-style rap-rock, are culture-jammers, are totally into video games, espouse vaguely anarchistic and anti-corporate rhetoric and — if all that weren’t totally cool enough — wear sunglasses in environments where there is no chance that the sun’s UV rays will harm their skin, such as at night and in buildings.
Matthew Lillard plays the most ridiculous of this ridiculous band of would-be kewl kids, a gangly geek-of-all-trades who goes under the moniker Cereal Killer and embodies at least three distinct subcultures. He wears John Lennon-style granny glasses and his long hair in Pippy Longstocking braids, but he also makes mix-tapes of rockers who asphyxiated on their own vomit, makes lofty speeches about how information must be free and at one point wears a Dead Kennedys t-shirt. Cereal Killer is Hackers’ version of Poochie from The Simpsons. Both characters operate under the mistaken assumption that if a character with one signifier of cool (like sunglasses, or a skateboard) is hip and fun, then a character with every signifier of cool will be the most awesome badass ever.
Early in the film, Zero Cool trades in his dumbass, trying-too-hard hacker nickname for the even more dumbass, trying-too-hard handle of Crash Override and embarks on a collision course with a former hacker turned corporate weasel known to hackers and Zero Cool as “The Plague” and to his mom as “Eugene.”
The Plague, as played by legendary show-business Casanova and Academy-Award winner Fisher Stevens, is a gloriously preposterous villain for a gloriously preposterous film. He’s a sniveling arch-criminal and would-be super-villain who rides around on a skateboard despite being old enough to be Zero Cool’s dad and seems willing to destroy the world just to make some money and land some hackers in jail.
Zero Cool is abetted in his cyber-endeavors by the aforementioned Acid Burn, also known as Kate Libby, and played by Angelina Jolie at the height of her ripe young sensuality. Jolie makes being a computer hacker sexy not because there’s anything inherently sexy about being very knowledgeable about computers (there really isn’t) or because she makes for a convincing hacker (she doesn’t) but because — and only because — she’s a young Angelina Jolie, and she oozes sexuality that’s at once lushly feminine and intriguingly androgynous. Jolie could have played Ms. Butterworth in 1995 and suddenly a lot of people would find themselves wondering why they’re intensely turned on by maple syrup. In Hackers, Jolie seems less like a high school kid and peer to Zero Cool (who seems wholly unworthy of her, despite Miller and Jolie being an off-screen couple at the time) than a sexy alien visitor from Planet Cool.
Hackers builds to a massive hack-off between Zero Cool/Crash Override and the youthful spirits of cyber-good versus The Plague (abetted by a sidekick played for maximum randomness by Penn Jillette and a weirdly Edith Bunkeresque accomplice played by Lorraine Bracco). Audiences for Hackers concerned about the dark powers of hackers could derive comfort from the knowledge that The Plague was just about the least realistic, plausible cyber-bogeyman imaginable. (Director Ian Softley leans heavily on animation to convey what it’s like inside a computer, visually representing hacking as a sentient paisley explosion of neon lights spiraling hypnotically.)
Twenty years on, Hackers is endlessly re-watchable as a deranged comic-book fever dream of hackers as righteous juvenile delinquent warriors, keyboard cowboys fighting the good fight against the forces of oppression. It gets just about everything deliciously wrong, and it’s destined to be even more gloriously, hilariously dated in the decades to come.
Nathan Rabin served as the head writer of The A.V. Club for most of his 16-year career there. He is also the author of four books, including 2009’s memoir The Big Rewind; 2010’s My Year Of Flops, a book of essays about failed film; 2012’s Weird Al: The Book, a coffee-table book about the life and career of “Weird Al” Yankovic, which Rabin co-wrote with the beloved pop icon; and 2013’s You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me, an exploration of musical subcultures focused on the time Rabin spent following Insane Clown Posse and Phish. He lives in Chicago with his wife and dog and tweets at @nathanrabin.