Hackers: The Film: The Review

This part 5 of a 5 part series in which AJ examines games and game culture. This final part is on the Rave-themed 90s thriller Hackers. Read more after the break, obviously.

To put it mildly, Hackers is a confused mess. An anachronistic, befuddled piece of techno babble that, as I re-watched it, I desperately tried to figure out what the director and writers were aiming at when they conceived this stillborn idea.

The story begins with an 11 year-old Dade Murphy being sentenced for crashing multiple (1,507) systems. His punishment is a fine and the removal of his computer until he is 18. There is no attempt to imply that he is innocent, yet the scene is presented as some kind of childhood trauma. Like taking this kid’s computer is the worst crime, rather than being akin to telling a serial stabber he can’t play with knives any more. The film fast-forwards seven years and you see the late teen Dade (played by Jonny Lee Miller) hack into a TV station, disrupt the transmission and put on The Outer Limits.

The first scene is confusing in its bizarre juxtaposition, we are meant to sympathise with this child and yet the crimes he has committed are clearly not a good thing. Then,when married with the second scene, it’s clear the film has no idea what it is trying to say.

Dade is supposed to be cool, misunderstood and rebelling against the ‘system’ and ‘the man’ that is supposed to make him awesome in teenage eyes. Really, though, the film turns him into a right-wing wet dream. The sort of thing you see them tut over when an offender is given a second chance and repeat offends as soon as he gets the chance, or a pathetic addict who can’t help himself.  Worse yet, Dade is dressed like a reject from a Mad Max film.

This warped, contradictory philosophy continues throughout. (is this some kind of theme in video game films? – Ed) Dade and his misfits are meant to be rebelling but it is unclear as to what they are rebelling against, only that whatever it is makes them cool for opposing it. They all have names like ‘Serial Killer’, ‘Acid Burn’ and ‘Lord Nikon’ and have no qualms about setting off fire alarms, damaging property and tampering with traffic lights to cause accidents – because it is all about sticking it to the man. Yet the main villain, ‘The Plague’, is also a hacker, one who happens to be ripping off a major corporation for 25 million dollars that it won’t even notice – yet he, apparently, needs to be stopped. Ignoring the fact that he is also sticking it to ‘the man’ – and far more effectively – the film justifies this by stating that he has also released a virus which will cause catastrophe. A virus that was conveniently unleashed after one of the ‘good’ hackers broke in and stole a bunch of files.

So these misfits have to return the money, stop the virus and save the day…

“Hi, you might remember me as the killer in Scream that wasn’t Skeet Ulrich. No? Never mind then.”

This utterly bodged-together plot about cool, misunderstood kids facing off against discombobulated, stuffy and corrupt adults could have done with some half-decent acting, given the terrible dialogue and narrative, but no it was not meant to be. Miller is bland and stilted throughout his performance as the teenager he is five years too old to play. None of the personality nor spark he would display as Sick Boy on Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, only a year later, is apparent here. Angelina Jolie is equally tepid as the love interest. The supposed verbal sparring and non-existent chemistry between the two is nothing but painful.

“Seriously, if you must see my breasts go watch Gia. I get off with girls and everything.”

The rest of the cast do their best to try and act up and be the zany archetypes required of the laughable script, the best of whom is Jesse Bradford (who plays the put upon Joey), but constant gurning from all involved is at the heart of what I find to be wrong with the film’s portrayal of gamers and gaming. It really has no idea about the culture it is trying to portray and instead conjures up some kind of imposed fantasy of how we nerds would supposedly like to appear. For instance, its protagonists are all dayglo ravers with ‘crazy’ hair cuts and ‘wacky’ physical ticks that are supposed to make them the most awesome people ever.

That is not nerd culture. Hackers just don’t look like this:

Unless they are LARPing as Jackie Chan and the Hawaian shirt douchebags

They look like this:

Yes, taken from the same film. Why is it that nerds are excited about an Olympic swimming pool? It makes no sense.

Secondly, the film makes attempts at making hacking look as slick and colourful as its characters.  As if hacking doesn’t involve plenty of time just looking at bits of random characters, altering them and seeing what APIs you can access as a result, the film has glorified screensavers swirling around on each computer with hacking taking mere minutes rather than hours of mind-numbing code crunching.

The Internet Super Highway is a real highway, too. Towards the beginning, where we see the streets of New York turn into a motherboard, I thought that perhaps they meant this to be symbolic but no, in the very next scene the computer guys are looking at it on a screen. It’s meant to be both metaphorical and literal.

Welcome… To the Internet.

Thirdly, the point on which it most fails is the clear lack of a proper technical advisor on the set. Even if you ignore the crappy symbolism and the Ritalin kids that are so desperate to like Nirvana and Orbital, it is impossible to not shake your head at how out of date Hackers already was on release in 1995. The acceleration of hardware during that period was so ramped-up that referring to any piece of hardware by horsepower was bound to sound antiquated within months. Anyone worth their salt would have told them to remove nods to 16MB of RAM and the like from the already ham-fisted chunks of exposition.

Hackers is an anachronistic embarrassment, both in terms of multi-coloured disenfranchisement (put paid to by Trainspotting soon after) and grasp of the subject matter (making Sneakers look positively with it). With awful acting, terrible writing, uninspired cinematography and a mixed-up stupid message that makes no sense, Hackers was a film that should have been avoided at the time. Now it stands as a shameful example of 90s ‘culture’.

Director: Ian Softley
Starring: Jonny Lee Miller, Angelina Jolie, Jesse Bradford, Matthew Lillard, Fisher Stevens
One to ignore: Pretty much all of them, Fisher Stevens was pretty good in Factotum
One to watch: Wendell Pierce. That’s right:

It’s the m****rf***ing Bunk!!!

If you do not get this reference please go and read my review of Stay Alive.

PS: Someone told me to mention that the soundtrack is awesome, so instead of watching this film just go and buy the CD or whatever it is that people do in the real modern age of electronic transactions.

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