***/**** Image A Sound B- Extras A
starring Jonny Lee Miller, Angelina Jolie, Fisher Stevens, Lorraine Bracco
written by Rafael Moreu
directed by Iain Softley
by Sydney Wegner When a baby is born, a universe of possibilities opens wide in front of them. They don't yet know how to move or talk, but they hold within them the capacity for good or evil and everything in between. No matter what, parents look at their children in those first moments of life and think, Here in my hands I hold a doctor, a scientist, a legendary artist, a Nobel prize winner, an Olympic gold medallist. Despite my own failures and shortcomings, I have given birth to a life that may manage to overcome all the shit I will put them through to become someone infinitely greater than myself. Maybe it will influence the lives of millions to make the world a better place. Though parents have a great effect on how they turn out, ultimately they are their own unpredictable and uncontrollable person. We know they'll change something, that they will affect the people they come to know, that this one small thread they represent will alter the vast human tapestry in some way. Of course, we always hope it will be for the best.
Hackers takes place not so terribly long ago, yet for how much has changed since, it may as well be a hundred years old. It is a capsule of a moment in which the Internet was that newborn baby. Unfortunately, we ended up with something like the kid from that episode of "The Twilight Zone" who holds a town hostage with the power of his mind, but in 1995 we only knew that a world-changing door had been opened. People didn't understand enough about the Internet to determine how much of Hackers was real and how much was utter bullshit. Most moviegoers probably didn't buy the cheesy lingo and acid-trip sequences of rainbow math equations floating around people's heads, but who's to say if an eleven-year-old kid could feasibly bring down a major bank from the comfort of his home? A boatload of movies based on this cyberspace premise were released from the late-'80s through the '90s ('95 alone also saw Johnny Mnemonic, Virtuosity, The Net, and Strange Days, not to mention a hacker villain in GoldenEye), and most dealt with the fear inherent in this seemingly all-powerful entity that was a total mystery to the general public.
Hackers opted instead to focus on the thrill of a new frontier, to craft a whole subculture based around this collection of zeroes and ones that few people fully comprehended. It wanted to show us a group of kids who used the Internet for good, who could be high-school dropouts by day and revolutionaries by night, who had a certain special intelligence that old people/The Man didn't even know existed. The Internet was magic, a sort of paradise where, as the Hacker's Manifesto* often quoted in the film states, "We exist without skin colour, without nationality, without religious bias... and you call us criminals. Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity." Obviously, here in 2017, we know how that worked out. What makes this film special is the way it invites you to forget everything you know: the incessant social-media notifications, the e-mails begging for replies, the apps that won't load and the ads that bombard you, the small device that lets all the pieces of awful news and outrage and kitten videos pour directly into your pocket--they're gone. Those things have been born, but haven't even learned to crawl. You don't have a computer next to your bed sending microwaves to your brain as you sleep. The computer is something you use at work or the library for an hour, then turn off. Hackers presents to us a world that may never have truly existed in the first place, but that we can look back on and remember fondly, through the same rosy glasses our parents don for whichever decade they felt youngest and coolest. Oh, the fashions are so adorably embarrassing! The slang's so painfully lame! We were so innocent then, we had such fun. At the heart of this ludicrous fantasy is, quite simply, optimism.
The plot of Hackers is pretty straightforward. A group of teen 1337 h4x0rz accidentally stumbles onto a plan by a skeevy tech officer calling himself The Plague (Fisher Stevens) to defraud the company he works for. A battle between greed and morality ensues, and of course the fresh-faced young hackers in their punk T-shirts and blinding neon outwit the greasy suit. The specifics, however, are muddled and odd, with troubled loner Dade (Jonny Lee Miller) struggling to fit in with the cool kids at his new school, as well as impress the pants off of Kate (Angelina Jolie). At 11 years old, "Zero Cool" Dade was arrested for crashing the New York Stock Exchange and forbidden from using a computer again until his eighteenth birthday. Now living with his single mom (Alberta Watson), he goes right back to his old ways the second he can legally touch a keyboard, this time under the alias "Crash Override." The film takes him and his emotional struggles seriously and does build a warm dynamic between Dade and his mother, at least, yet it's just plain difficult to shed a tear for someone slinging lame insults over slime-green e-chats. The villain's plan should be simple enough but most of the details whiz by, made almost unintelligible by fantasy techno-lingo that has little basis in reality. All of that awkward character-building and plot confusion and unrealism doesn't quite matter, though. What carries the human scenes isn't a compulsion to know what's going to happen next so much as the enjoyment of watching people hang out. Rounding out the young crew are Joey (Jesse Bradford), Cereal Killer (Matthew Lillard), Nikon (Laurence Mason), and Phreak (Renoly Santiago). These misfits and their bizarre banter are a joy to watch, and the actors' clear dedication to their characters saves an often cringeworthy script. It's remarkably similar to any 1980s high-school hangout flick, with the teens throwing around their alien languages and having fun while pranking the principal and thwarting their parents' attempts at discipline.
Of course, the difference between this and John Hughes is the film's garish psychedelic cyberpunk style. Like Tron before it, Hackers offers a visceral experience, the chance to explore cyberspace from inside it, to drown in chips and wires. The camera dives through circuit boards and terminals; the innards of a computer are depicted as a neon blueprint of a city. Ironically enough, many of these sequences were done with motion-control, models, and traditional animation rather than CGI, as director Iain Softley felt at the time that digital effects were too flat and sterile. Maybe this should have been a hint, a warning to keep our focus on three-dimensional reality as opposed to flat, artificial screens. Or maybe that's accidentally the meta-point: computers feel real. When we use them, we enter another place. To a hacker, it isn't a screen or a sequence of numbers, it's a living environment where robot arms fight over tapes and pixels build worlds. Computers become magical entities, both an extension of the user and a sentient being all their own, a partner and a pet. During the final showdown, the camera pans across the hackers in a row of phone booths, each with their own laptop plugged into dial-up. The screens are logos and smiley faces and skulls reflective of each user, and as they boot up together to take on their foe, the computers read like fellow soldiers.
In this way, Hackers reflects our symbiotic, often obsessive relationship with the Internet. On the surface it's about having a tool to accomplish tasks more easily, but as we rely on it more and more, it has grown to be a part of us--not only shaped by us, but also constantly morphing into something just out of our reach. Whatever unhealthy effects this may have had, it is a fact rooted in our loneliness, our fear of being forgotten, and that deep-down darkness that makes us feel so separate from one another, even those to whom we are closest. Ultimately the Internet is an avenue for reaching out to find another person who is like us, a tether in the roaring isolation of our own mind. Hackers actually puts those lonely people together in a room. No longer are they the pasty nerds in the basements of the world--they're rollerblading friends on the cutting edge of cool. Just as we are given the fantasy of a system we can use for justice and good, we have the fantasy that intelligence isn't just for kids who get shoved into their locker at school, and that technology is a wave of the future that cannot be corrupted by petty, materialistic adults. Above all is the pure fun of it, the thrill of a bigger hard drive or a faster processor, the notion that cracking the FBI's password is akin to skydiving, only better because you figured out how to do it yourself.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
For all the fetishization of digital contained within the feature, Shout! Factory's 2.32:1, 1080p Blu-ray transfer of Hackers is a brilliant argument for the beauty of film. While there are some optical flaws (white spots and scratches in some parts, most noticeably during the opening credits), overall the image is gorgeous. The grain is subtle, the contrast is perfect, the shadows are rich. Skin tones are smooth and supple, and though fine detail is so crisp you could count the actor's pores, there is no harsh HiDef gloss hardening their faces. The cast are a monument to soft, fresh youth in this presentation. Unfortunately, although the accompanying 2.0 DTS-HD MA track is clear and well-balanced, it's a little flat. On another movie it might not have bothered me at all, but music and ambient noise are so important to Hackers. The electronic soundtrack (featuring, among others, Orbital, Massive Attack, and Underworld) is legendary, and details like the clicking of keyboards should be more pronounced, as Hackers is all about immersing yourself in the digital experience and connecting with the computer and this subculture on a physical level.
Shout! Factory has eschewed a commentary in favour of retrospective interviews; if it was one or the other, they definitely made the right call. Because the interview subjects treat the film with sincerity, hardcore fans will feel appreciated and skeptics may look past the surface-level cheesiness to find a new respect for what the filmmakers were attempting to do. Given the umbrella heading of "The Keyboard Cowboys: A Look Back at Hackers", the 64-minute piece is split into three HD segments ("Our World Now," "The Beauty and the Baud," and "You Can't Stop Us All"), but the talking heads and content are so loosely categorized that it's best viewed as one long documentary. (For instance, if you wanted to hear the complete story of Iain Softley's intentions with the film, you'd need to watch the whole thing.) Actual "hacking consultants" provide background on the culture and technological realities of the era, while actors Matthew Lillard, Penn Jillette, and Fisher Stevens tell interesting and amusing backstage stories. Costume designer Roger Burton delves into the post-punk and post-apocalyptic themes that influenced him on the project, and how he mixed and matched and altered different styles of clothing to create something new. Fashion hacking! Visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang is my favourite interview; his stories about layering real models with animation are fascinating. The fact that these effects were crafted using analog techniques is a huge part of what makes Hackers so special; had it been made today with CGI, a certain sensual beauty would be lost. This is such a satisfying and comprehensive making-of that it makes up for the only other bonus feature being the theatrical trailer.
*Written in 1986 by real-life hacker Loyd "The Mentor" Blankenship.