Almost since the day computers existed in a format other than a building-long series of spinning whatever-the-hells, there have been those intrepid, intelligent, and largely illegal folks out who try to put their own stamp on the technology though “the backdoor.” Those people are of course the hackers, and almost as long as that buzzword has existed, there’ve been movies about them and their furiously-clacked keyboards. But since most people don’t know what hackers are or what they do, the films had to make the whole thing seem a lot sexier than it probably is. And let’s not forget that hacking saved humans from Velociraptors in Jurassic Park. Michael Mann’s new film Blackhat is based on a real-life hacking attack that crippled Iran’s nuclear program, but we have eight other hacking films that are, as cool as they are, certainly just movie magic silliness. Here they are in chronological order.
One of the earliest instances of hacking in films is sadly one that is responsible for a lot of what became enormous fallacies in subsequent features. John Badham’s WarGames introduced everyone to personal computers, modems, backdoor entrances, and the idea of being just some kid getting into one of the most secure places on the planet. This is also the movie that introduced most of us to the term “Defcon” and the corresponding numbers thereafter. Matthew Broderick, a few years before he took a day off, played an uber-smart troublemaker who initiates a game of Global Thermonuclear War with a vibrato-sounding computer system that controls the nukes at NORAD. Why yes, we would like to play a game.
After a few years, hackers used to just get put in movies as a catch-all for a computer expert. Everybody knew “I’m in!” and that a string of incomprehensible code totally meant something. This exact premise was used in Phil Alden Robinson’s Sneakers, boasting an impressive cast including Robert Redford and Sidney Poitier, in which a team of infiltration experts, who are hired by companies to test their own security systems, get recruited by the NSA, and find shady business they shouldn’t have. David Strathairn’s character is the token hacker and is the one who stumbles upon the aforementioned code. You know he’s a hacker because he knows what scrolling numbers and letters means. There’s probably a class in that now.
Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
1995 was a huge year for hacking/computer things, as the next few on this list will confirm. It was just at the right time where people were readily buying and using home computers and cyberpunk had become a real genre (this was the same year that gave us Ghost in the Shell and Strange Days as well). As dumb and sort of hokey as Robert Longo’s Johnny Mnemonic is, it did give us one of the first filmic depictions of a future where computers and humanity have merged, a step toward the singularity. Keanu Reeves plays the titular data courier who gets embroiled in a Yakuza plot. Beginning here, movies would make colorful, electricity-tinged visual representations of what information traveling through circuit boards would look like. Fun fact: Johnny’s brain can carry 80GB of data in the year 2021. In the year 2015, my low-end Dell laptop can hold 457GB. His brain is basically an impressive iPod.
The Net (1995)
This movie makes me laugh now because it’s so like “yeah, of course,” but back in 1995, we hadn’t fully realized just how much our identities were electronically encoded. In an age where buying something on Amazon means you get specially-targeted ads directly to your computer, and where we literally put each and every piece of information we have into an incorporeal data cloud, the idea of someone accidentally stumbling across the fact that the government knows everything about us is laughable. But, in ’95, it took an unassuming computer nerd like Sandra Bullock to uncover a massive conspiracy. This movie proved so popular that it launched a short-lived spinoff series on the USA Network. I think it followed Silk Stalkings. I mean, that stands to reason.
It took a little while, but of course the last of the 1995 hacking movies would just be called Hackers. Why wouldn’t it? And, being the mid-’90s, it was aimed at the disaffected youth who wore flannel and unlaced Dr. Martens who thought the world was out to get them, but who also had all the time in the world to sit in their parent’s nice suburban homes on the computer. Years after writing a dangerous computer virus, Jonny Lee Miller (whose hacker name is “Zero Cool” by the way) and his friends, including Angelina Jolie and the ’90s’ Matthew Lillard, have to use their own skills to find out who is planting an equally dangerous virus, and prove to the Secret Service that it’s not them. Fisher Stevens is The Plague. Hack the planet.
The Matrix (1999)
Keanu Reeves redeemed himself from the Mnemonic flop by becoming The One, a.k.a Computer Jesus, in the Wachowskis’ seminal piece of cyberpunk action cinema. Mr. Anderson spends his days in a crummy desk job and his nights hacking away at the green-hued compu-sphere, looking for a mysterious hacker named Morpheus, through his associate Trinity. He finds a lot more than that. This is easily the most successful hacking movie to date, and took it to an apex it hasn’t ever reached again. What’s more of a hacker’s wet dream than actually getting to go inside a computer and be the baddest-ass action hero anyone’s ever seen? Of course, the ill-fated character Mouse is the one who is closest to being what an actual hacker probably looks and acts like. Fun Fact: The Matrix was the first movie I ever owned on DVD. And it blew my whole mind.
I thought this movie was the Ayatollah of Rock-and-Rollah when it came out in 2001, the summer before my senior year of high school. Now, it seems like the most cliched and hackneyed thing of all time, an explosion of post-Y2K flashy excess and pre-9/11 extravagance. Coming off of the success of the first X-Men movie, Hugh Jackman was hot shit and was cast as Stanley Jobson, an ex-con who was in prison for cybercrime and who is trying his damnedest to see his daughter, though her mother and her mother’s sleazy boyfriend aren’t fans. Enter the mysterious John Travolta who offers Stan everything if he can hack into a secure network so he can steal $9 billion. Easy, right? So much of this seems completely implausible, not least of which being Jackman as a computer terrorist (a precursor to Chris Hemsworth, surely). A standout scene that I’m sure sent real hackers back multiple times involves Travolta giving Jackman a short window to do a particular hack or he’ll get shot in the head, and as an added bit of pressure, he has to do this while a beautiful woman performs a sex act on him. Just… just the dumbest.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009 & 2011)
Hacking in movies became either a given or a nonentity for many years in film, until Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s landmark series of books that became a landmark series of Swedish films which eventually became an American film. A thriller about murder and family history, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo introduced Lisbeth Salander (played in Sweden by Noomi Rapace and in America by Rooney Mara), a brilliant computer whiz with an immensely troubled past who, while small in size, is one of the most dangerous and unpredictable women in the world. She had a really hard life, so you can sort of forgive some of her more sociopathic tendencies.
And there we have it. Did we leave off some of your favorite hacking movies? Are some of these real stupid and you’re mad at us for picking them? Let us know in the comments below, but make sure you use the backdoor.