Hackers (1995)

Style over substance?

Well, let’s just say that Hackers is a fast and enjoyable thriller which has a sizeable overload of style.  There must be some substance under all that glitz.

It’s curious because the same question could be asked of its director, Ian Softley’s next film, K-Pax, which was beautifully shot and designed but was set completely in the real world and had an oddly distorted view of the world tied in with the supposedly alien nature of its main character.

Hackers was also one of a large number of Hacker movies made around the mid-Nineties, where the hacker has become the anti-establishment hero of the Seventies, only younger.

Well, except in Sneakers (1992), where he was literally played by someone who was one of the stock anti-establishment heroes of the Seventies.  But I digress.

However, in most of these films he is the lonely kid working out of his bedroom, while Mom and Dad aren’t watching, usually prepubescent because, of course, we knew that there were genius kids out there doing these things in real life.

Well, at least that’s what everyone believed at the time.  Don’t ask me whether it was true.

But Hackers attempts to do something rather stranger (and, I suspect, far more difficult) than making a child the hero:

It tries to make nerds cool.

Style, friend, style.

Dade (Johnny Lee Miller) released a computer virus when he was twelve that caused 1507 computer systems to crash.  His parole forbid him to own or use either a computer or a touch tone phone until he was 18.

So naturally, the instant he turns 18, he immediately starts wandering around in other people’s systems and gets into a major hacker battle with someone called Acid Burn.

Thanks largely to all the havoc Dade caused in his family’s life, his mother has moved to New York City and he reluctantly has to start at a new High School.

But before he’s been there more than a few minutes, he’s met up with a fellow hacker, The Phantom Phreak who specializes in hacking phone systems.  He quickly gathers a new set of hacker friends including Cereal Killer (Matthew Lillard), Nikon (who has a photographic memory) and Joey, the youngest and most naive of the group.

He’s also interested in Kate (a dazzlingly young Angelina Jolie, in her second leading role), who, of course, turns out to be Acid Burn.  The two of them get into a major battle to see who is the better hacker, unaware that Joey has managed to break into the incredible, unhackable Gibson supercomputer owned by a major corporation, and downloaded the most dangerous file in the whole computer.


This means that their head of computer security, a former hacker who insists that everyone call him The Plague (Fisher Stevens), is after them.

And he doesn’t care what he has to do to get his file back.

It’s a reasonably competent sort of thriller plot, and it moves fast enough that for the most part one doesn’t notice how preposterous it all is.  And if there was any risk of that, then we have a lot of surface glitz to distract us, from all the beautiful background shots of New York City (even though most of the film was shot in London); to a weird hacker club with a giant-sized video game; a lot of helicopter shots from far above the city, which, as in Tron, ends up looking like a giant electronic circuit board; an incredibly visual screen supercomputer which doesn’t make a lick of sense; and a stunning portrayal of the cyberworld which looks far better than any cinematic portayal of it in the entire era.

Mind you, there is a reason for this:

They didn’t use computer graphics.

Instead, the virtual world is a big model, and they used motion control cameras to create the shots of flying through its “streets.”

It’s a clever choice, considering the state of the technology available in the era.  It is interesting to compare it to Johnny Mnemonic, which came out the same year, and is far more complex than any of the CGI visions of cyberspace at the time — but still has a very obvious, computer generated softness to its look.

The Gibson is also an entirely fascinating design, like a small city, from the data towers surrounding the main machine, made of glowing green glass, with brightly lit characters flowing across their surfaces, to the massive, multiuser console and a huge screen.  And behind them loom the towers of the Gibson itself, made of separate blocks of red glass, with obvious gaps between them, and the entire structure glowing an eerie red.

As I said, it makes absolutely no sense as a supercomputer, and there’s no sign of any cooling systems (like the Cray 2 which was actually immersed in a pool of cooling fluid), or even the ordinary electrical breakers, conduits and boxes which you’d expect to find surrounding anything which eats up this much power.

But it really doesn’t matter.  After all, it looks cool.

And you have to give their production designers a lot of credit for visually tying cities, cyberspace and a massive computer together, with designs echoing city streets filled with skyscrapers.

As usual in these films, there’s a mix of outdated technology, a few more-or-less up to date references, and a lot of absurd futuristic tech.

I particularly liked the pair of heads-up display glasses Dade wears in the film’s climax, which look almost identical to the Google Glass device — only two decades early.

And the first experimental versions weighed Eight pounds.

On the other hand, the phone phreak tip in the film — using a recording of the tones produced by a pay phone to make free calls — actually worked at the time, although I’m not sure how long it was before the phone companies updated that system.

It’s not like you can find a payphone anymore, anyway.

And the videogame Dade and Kate play is a real game and was released the same year at the film.

Johnny Lee Miller would get his big breakthrough role the next year in Trainspotting, while Angelina got typecast for some years as the tough girl in the tight tank top with no bra.

Back in the Eighties, a lot of people thought Fisher Stevens was going places thanks to his starring role in Short Circuit, although that fizzled out quickly.  He has gone onto a long and relatively successful career as a character actor, which is about as much as any actor can ask for.

However, I’m not sure I’ll ever forgive him for playing the world’s most annoying comic relief best buddy in My Science Project (1985).

That would be asking a lot.

You will probably spot the quick flashes we get of Angelina’s breasts, although I’m mildly surprised they didn’t show more, even in a PG-13 film (see, for example, Michael Crichton’s Runaway).  I suspect that they must have had to pay her just as much for those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flashes as if they’d done a full topless scene.  However, Runaway was one of the first PG-13s a decade earlier and the standard had probably tighted up quite a bit since then.  What is easier to spot, though, is Penn Gillette of Penn and Teller fame, making yet another bit part appearance.

I need to make one thing clear, however.  No matter how sarcastic I may sound, or how many flaws I might point out, I do actually love this film.  It’s got an interesting cast of young actors who went on to better things (although “young” is relative, as Angelina was the second youngest at age twenty, and only Jesse Bradford who plays Joey was an actual teenager), a lot of detail worked into its strange hacker world, great production design, and a solid, if familiar, sort of plot.

In fact, it’s a lot like that of Sneakers.

But more than that, it’s a lot of fun.

So I suppose in the end it really doesn’t matter if it is more style than substance.  After all, it has insane amounts of style, far more than you could fit into three or four ordinary movies.

And compared to that, any amount of substance is going to look unimportant.

But shut off the critical functions of your brain and it will be fine.  Or, even better, have fun mocking its sillier moments.

So choose your handle, gather some friends (and popcorn), and try not to hack a bank across state lines.

That’s a federal offense…

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