In movies, the word “hacker” is interchangeable with “wizard.” Screenwriters can have a character mutter something about “nodes” or “encryption,” slap the ish out of a keyboard, and acquire godlike powers over the natural world. They figure the average person doesn’t really understand computers, so anyone who can hack one might as well be a mythical creature. Well, this is one of those times when the Hollywood version of a job is somehow even more hilariously off the mark than usual. This brings us to the film we will be discussing today – 1995’s Hackers.
But first, let’s put this all in its proper context.
The mid-’90s were a rough time for filmmakers – or for cultural commentators of any kind, really – to speculate about the Internet and where it was going both technologically and socially. So before anyone laughs at the cyberpunk edginess of Hackers – which should not be forbidden, because much of it is hilariously dated and silly – keep in mind that no movies from that period could see the future 20/20, much less express it in visual terms far removed from the average screensaver. No, the Internet would not be a Tron-like circuit grid controlled by inline-skating enthusiasts, but Hackers tapped into a rebel subculture that was real and long-lasting, and seems all the more forward-thinking 20-plus years later.
Directed by Iain Softley, Hackers is a cyberclassic about a group of gifted, misunderstood teenagers who enjoy hacking into computers but never to harm anyone. They are put in peril when one of them discovers a secret computer file hidden in the garbage of a supercomputer that belongs to a multinational corporation. He is subsequently arrested and charged with planting a virus that will cause oil tankers to spill over and create a natural disaster. He’s innocent and completely clueless, and his friends set out to prove it, led by Dade Murphy/Zero Cool/Crash Override (Jonny Lee Miller), a gifted hacker with a secret. Dade is new to the gang but he is also the most talented. Dade faces tough but amorous competition with Kate Libby/Acid Burn (young Angelina Jolie) a beautiful and intelligent hacker who resents his imposition on her life and her friends.
The rest of this motley group of rabble-rousers go by the handles: “Cereal Killer” (Matthew Lillard), “Lord Nikon” (Laurence Mason), Joey, who has yet to claim a name (Jesse Bradford), “The Phantom Phreak” (Renoly Santiago), and the villain of the film… ”The Plague” (Fisher Stevens). Viewers might also snicker at the comedic joining of “Crash Override” and “Acid Burn” (this becoming… “crash and burn”) who ultimately form a love interest over the competition of trying to outdo each in the hacker realm.
Perhaps what is most remarkable about Hackers is that it not only has young heroes and treats youth with reasonable respect, it also features great filmmaking. Hackers is a beautifully crafted picture: highly suspenseful, very funny, and also quite sexy (with Angelina Jolie offering some brief partial nudity).
More literal-minded viewers may be bothered by implausible images such as SWAT teams acting as though they expect armed resistance from computer nerds. But the film uses images symbolically. For example, when the hacker heroes break into a computer, the filmmakers give us exciting visuals to represent what is going on in the computer, visuals that no one in real life would see. This makes the film more entertaining than simply watching yet another actor stare at a computer screen. The SWAT teams are there to show us how seriously the police respond to the hackers. Likewise, the hackers in this film all dress like punk rockers or Star Trek extras. They’re dressed this way to emphasize the character’s attitudes and to give the film its desired atmosphere. The film is more like a painting than a photograph, offering stronger impressions with fewer real details.
Upon its release, MGM set up a website for Hackers that soon afterwards was allegedly hacked by a group called the “Internet Liberation Front.” A photograph of the film’s stars were doodled upon, and the words “this is going to be an entertaining fun promotional site for a movie,” were replaced with “this is going to be a lame, cheesy promotional site for a movie!” The studio maintained the site during the theatrical run of the movie in its altered form. Good times.
Sure, Hackers in no way represents, in any shade of reality, hacking, hackers, or computer culture in general. The plot is campy, blah, blah, blah. But having said that, it is perhaps the greatest computer-related film ever made. Hackers represents the ineptitude and unwavering stubborn attitudes of every authority figure that has ever lived. Here they are rightly treated as pawns, omnipresent but easily sidestepped by our heroes.
At the time, Hackers was received with mixed reviews (as expected) with critics loving its stylish visual approach but slamming it for its unrealistic look at the subculture. Of course true hackers would have issues with its approach, but for the general public it was held in high regards for its entertainment value. All these years later and it still maintains its charm and appeal. A great cultural cult film that demonstrates both the interest and the naive nature of the assumed hacking subculture. Check it out if you never have.
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