The Test of Time #1: Hackers
Starring: Jonny Lee Miller, Angelina Jolie, Matthew Lillard, Fisher Stevens, Jesse Bradford, Lorraine Bracco, Wendell Pierce, Marc Anthony
Written by: Rafael Moreu (The Rage: Carrie 2)
Directed by: Iain Softley (The Wings of the Dove)
What Is It: A Gen-X thriller about a mismatched team of computer hackers who wind up in the middle of a corporate conspiracy to capsize oil tankers for personal profit, one of the breakout films for both Angelina Jolie and Matthew Lillard, and one of the most “MTV” movies ever made.
What Critics Said: “Tirelessly modish, hyper-glossy, super-superficial. It’s also cacophonous. And, for all of its drum-beating for brain power, dumb. […] Miller and Jolie [are] not characters, these two, they’re heroic icons of the upcoming millennium – sleek, androgynous and insubstantial as ghosts.” – Hal Hinson, The Washington Post
What Audiences Said: Hackers barely grossed $7 million at the box office, and is now best remembered as one of audiences' first introductions to Angelina Jolie and one of only three films in which Matthew Lillard was "cool." The others: Scream and SLC Punk.
The Test of Time:
When the inclination came up to write a series on motion pictures with an established reputation, but which don’t seem to be critically revisited very often, Hackers was one of the first films I came up with. I was exactly the right age for this movie when it came out – teenaged, to be more specific – and I immediately glommed onto its frenetic, rebellious, sensual and attention-deficit disorder interpretation of a pretty familiar “wrong man” story, in which a group of teenagers are scapegoated for a crime their pursuers are too “old” to even understand. I’ve found that many in my age demographic feel similarly about the film, which opened to mostly negative reviews, made a paltry $7 million in its theatrical run, and then promptly vanished from the airwaves, a dirty little secret that only too few would share.
But does it hold up today? Does it stand “The Test of Time,” as it were? I hadn’t seen Hackers in well over a decade, and I was determined to find out.
Hackers opens the way most films do, with a SWAT team storming a suburban household, automatic weapons brandished, arresting an eight-year-old. Indeed, this is how the authorities react to every single hacker depicted in Hackers: repeatedly assailed as “terrorists,” the teen wunderkinds of Iain Softley’s film are met with apparent overreactions from an older generation that has no idea how to respond to them. These are the very officials and organizations that restructured the world around computers, and who have birthed a new generation that understands the technology better than they do and, by extension, can now restructure the very fabric of society to their whim via their laptops.
A word about those laptops, and indeed all the technology portrayed in Hackers. This is the 1990s we’re talking about, and all of these devices are of course now wildly out of date. To some extent, they are portrayed the same way many films of the 1990s interpreted high-tech computer systems. Films like The Lawnmower Man and Disclosure struggled to make using a computer visually interesting, indulging in virtual reality fantasies that, obviously, never came to pass. Hackers never goes to these ridiculous extremes. No, Hackers goes to entirely different ridiculous extremes, whipping the camera around its characters 360 degrees, projecting their computer screens onto their faces and interpreting code monkeying in three-dimensional fractals that look very psychedelic and nifty, and don’t make a lick of sense. (Many of these techniques became popular in later years. Try watching Swordfish sometime. No wait, actually don’t.)
But unlike its contemporaries, Hackers never made computers seem fantastic or user-friendly. The heroes of Hackers are the proto-cyberpunk intelligentsia, quoting Ginsberg and Orwell off the top of their heads and mastering languages that require genius-level math and old-fashioned artistry. They have mastered a world kept just outside the audience’s reach, stylized here to the extremes necessary to make computer literacy accessible to n00bs. They congregate in what looks like Shredder’s youth hostel in 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They take on theatrical pseudonyms to develop an individual identity separate from the rest of world: Zero Cool, Crash Override, Acid Burn, Cereal Killer, Lord Nikon, Phreak, The Plague… these are not real people. These are plausible superheroes for the then-modern age, using their powers to reprogram local TV stations to play whatever shows they want. That was a fantasy in 1995. Now, it’s just Netflix Instant Streaming, but illegal.
The plot kicks in when Dade Murphy, aka Zero Cool, aka Crash Override, and his newfound team of cyber-assassins – including Matthew Lillard and a young, hyper-sexualized Angelina Jolie – run afoul of The Plague, a hacker played by fairly recent Academy Award winner Fisher Stevens (The Cove), who works within the corporate system to exploit it from within. He’s the closest thing we see to a hacker sellout. He’s in cahoots with a CEO played by Lorraine Bracco to skim millions from her own company – the old Superman III/Office Space gambit – and conceal their crime with a computer virus designed to capsize oil tankers, then blame it on our teenaged heroes. Simply emptying the tankers, or docking them like any other ship at sea, never comes up in anyone’s conversations.
Hackers is one of the most MTV movies ever made, and that should be considered as a good thing. It exalts popular culture as a means to understand greater truths: lightning flashes of televised sexuality play as soon as Miller meets Jolie, filtering a self-declared virgin’s sexual attraction through the only, admittedly tangential, experience he or, indeed, most of the target demographic really has. The very hacker credo, as read aloud by Marc Anthony (of all people), is a manifesto of a new, changing world that favors only those raised within it. Pop references are the new standard in verbal communication, and computers are the new physics. Proper understanding of these new languages makes the heroes and villains more powerful than the average citizen, even godlike. They can have their enemies declared legally dead, broadcast live on every TV station around the world, shift stoplights so they can rollerblade through logjammed traffic and perform other feats of exaggerated rebelliousness that Fight Club would get more credit for pulling off just four years later. But whereas Fight Club interpreted this behavior as cynical, even tragic terrorism, Hackers finds it genuinely empowering. These teens are inheriting the world, and are inherently superior to anyone currently running it. They are entitled to rewrite the rules to their liking. That’s a fantasy we can all understand.
And that’s why Hackers – surprise, surprise – actually stands The Test of Time. Despite evolving technologies, fashions and world orders, it embraces a glorified anarchism that seems now horrifyingly lacking in modern teenaged demographic cinema. Gone are the days of rebelling against “what have you got,” and in are wholesome religious allegories about chastity and neutered horror icons. Hackers is so subversive that it actually snuck Angelina Jolie’s bare nipples into the green band MPAA approved trailer. Suck on that, Beautiful Creatures.
Hackers presented its young audience with empowerment fantasies that were very much within their reach – provided they actually did some damned studying – and allowed entry into a nascent society of sci-fi superiority. For most of us, the oppressive dichotomy between baby boomer ludditism and millennial technical wizardry eventually translated to fixing our parents’ printers once a month. But then you hear about “Anonymous” and “Wikileaks,” and you think… Oh, that’s what Cereal Killer is up to nowadays.
Hackers isn’t even available on Blu-ray. They probably figure this movie's biggest fans have all torrented it by now anyway. They're probably right.
Come back next week for an all-new installment of The Test of Time! We’re going to be watching Spice World. It can’t possibly be as bad as we remember… Can it?
(Got a movie suggestion for The Test of Time? Make sure it's at least ten years old and tweet me at @WilliamBibbiani.)