Mark Kermode, one of my favorite film critics, says on the Blu-ray documentary material for the 20th Anniversary edition of Iain Softley’s 1995 cyberpunk film Hackers that cult movies aren’t made by filmmakers; cult movies are made by audiences. It’s completely true; anyone who sets out to make a “cult classic” has failed miserably, because you can’t know what’s going to strike a cord with audiences, nor can anyone know when.
Hackers is a perfect example of this phenomenon. It was made at a time when the idea of “hacking” and underground tech culture was a brand new thing, or at least still in its infancy, but it was because of this film that a lot of that subculture grew the way it did. Also, the fashion. WOW.
If you’ve never seen Hackers, you could take one look at it and call it the most dated film of all time, but in 1995, it was way ahead of its time, and also not particularly well received. How exactly do you visualize something that for most actual hackers was just numbers and keystrokes on a screen? The answer for this movie was to make it as colorful, as flashy, as technologically interesting as possible. It’s hard for movies to capture a youth culture, and since I was only 11 at the time I don’t really remember anything like this, but looking back it’s like the idea of “kids in the ’90s” exploded into a pile of film stock and became this.
The story begins with a young boy in court for a hacking-related catastrophe. Found guilty, his family is saddled with a $45,000 bill for damages and he’s forbidden from even touching a computer until his 18th birthday. We then cut to the boy, Dade Murphy, played by Jonny Lee Miller, and his mother flying to New York for live for what will be Dade’s final year of high school. He turns 18 and at the stroke of midnight, he begins tinkering away on a computer, messing up a local TV network. (Sidebar: What exactly is the name “Dade”? Is it just meant to sound cool in that mid-’90s kind of way? Is it short for Dadid?) Dade quickly meets a superhot girl at school named Kate (Angelina Jolie) who seems to be into computers and wants nothing to do with him. (She eventually joins up with them.) He also meets other, like-minded folks (played by Jesse Bradford, Matthew Lillard, Laurence Mason, and Renoly Santiago) and a bit of good-natured anarchy ensues.
Unfortunately, Bradford’s character, while trying to prove he’s as good as everybody else, hacks into the security network of a large shipping company. That network is overseen by a hipster d-bag hacker who calls himself The Plague (Fisher Stevens). The Plague has plans of launching a massive virus that will sink several ships in his company’s fleet unless the company pays a huge amount of money. The kids’ harmless hacking is the perfect alibi the Plague needs to make it seem like they’re the ones who did it, especially when the bad guy realizes Dade is already a convicted cyber-criminal. Wendell Pierce plays the FBI agent who become the kids’ main problem, while Dade plays a game of one-upmanship with the Plague to stave off future jail time.
When the movie came out, its plot was accused of being ludicrous and nonsensical, but actually, we’ve seen plenty of storylines like this since. It’s all about cyber-terrorism and extortion. It’s so prevalent that now it seems quaint, but at the time, Hackers was revolutionary. Being a trendsetter usually means you age the worst, and this is a movie that is certainly of its time visually. It was shot by the great DP Andrzej Sekula on that very rich, hard-to-light film stock that was the rage in the ’90s but it gives the movie more grandeur than you might think it.
Softley also worked very hard with visual effects people to make hacking a kind of sexy, dangerous task, by putting in swirling, floating numbers, and depicting the internet as huge columns of code in the cyber-realm complete with flickers and zaps. There’s a great shot at the beginning of the movie where we see an aerial view of NYC that fades seamlessly into a motherboard. It’s completely preposterous, but looks great.
But what I think Hackers really captures, more than the technology, which I think we can all agree is absolutely not what computer screens looked like in 1995, is the feeling of the youth movement at the time. There’s a lot of rollerblading and skateboarding and the clothes are definitely that post-grunge colorful sloppiness, but there’s also the attitude that “we’re kids and we’re bored and gonna try to do something important.” Obviously, all the hackers in the movie are some kind of genius. They’re also lost in some way, outsiders, people looking for a community. When Clinton was president, things were going fairly well as a country, but the youth still needed to rebel from something, and so the corporate norm became the target, and this movie encapsulates that whole mentality very well.
The 20th Anniversary Blu-ray from Shout Factory and MGM has a gorgeous video and audio transfer that, mixed with the aforementioned rich film stock, looks astounding. There’s an hour-long making-of and retrospective doc that’s split up into three parts if you’d like. It features interviews with director Iain Softley; cast members Matthew Lillard, Fisher Stevens, and Penn Jillette; costume designer Roger Burton; visual effects artist Peter Chiang; hacking consultants Nicholas Jarecki and Emmanuel Goldstein, and film critic Mark Kermode. It’s a great watch for sure.
Hackers is a movie that couldn’t have been made at any other time, right at the beginning of the computer-centric world in which we currently live. It’s dated and a bit hokey now, sure, but Hackers is still a whole lot of fun and feels like a movie that people will and ought to discover for the next 20 years.
HACK THE PLANET!!!