Hackers may have been of its time, but it was also ahead of it
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“This is our world now… The world of the electron and the switch, the beauty of the baud.” —Loyd Blankenship (a.k.a. The Mentor), “The Conscience Of A Hacker”
The mid-’90s were a rough time for filmmakers—or for cultural commentators of any kind, really—to speculate about the Internet and where it was going both technologically and socially. Would we wander through the Internet somehow, playing spy games in the virtual reality of Disclosure, with its pointless architecture and cumbersome data mitts? Would ordering a pizza online turn us into flannel-ensconced shut-ins like it does Sandra Bullock in The Net? Or would this thing be so sinister that merely turning on your computer might lead you straight to Dee Snider’s SearingGasPainLand? So before anyone laughs at the cyberpunk edginess of Hackers—which should not be forbidden, because much of it is hilariously dated and silly—keep in mind that no movies from that period could see the future 20/20, much less express it in visual terms far removed from the average screensaver. No, the Internet would not be a Tron-like circuit grid controlled by inline-skating enthusiasts, but Hackers tapped into a rebel subculture that was real and long-lasting, and seems all the more forward-thinking 17 years later.
A vast swath of “The Conscience Of A Hacker,” a.k.a. the Hacker Manifesto, is read verbatim in Hackers, including the quote above, touting a borderless world, one free from the biases of national, religious, and racial identity, and committed to taking down the powerful. Phrases like “the beauty of the baud” may root the quote firmly in another time and place—a time and place where computer whiz kids marvel at the cheetah-speed of a 28.8-baud modem. (If those born in the year Hackers came out were ever forced to operate at a 28.8-baud rate, they’d likely jam an icepick into their skull.) But the basic principles of digital rebellion haven’t changed from 1995 to 2012, and with the ascendancy of Anonymous, WikiLeaks, LulzSec, and other chaos agents, Hackers is the rare film that’s both amusingly dated and eerily prescient. And that’s to say nothing of the elfin charms of a young Angelina Jolie.
Consider a sequence early in the film. We’ve learned, through an overly cutesy introduction, that an 11-year-old in suburban Seattle in 1988, operating under the handle “Zero Cool,” crashed 1,507 computer systems and brought the stock market to its knees. Seven years, a $45,000 fine, and no access to computers or a touch-tone phone later, “Zero Cool” is now “Crash Override,” played by Jonny Lee Miller, and he’s back on the keyboard, staving off the boredom and loneliness of living in a new city (New York) with his mother. In short order, writer Rafael Moreu and director Iain Softley give us the profile of a hacker: the arrogance and snotty wit, the relentless braggadocio, the contempt for corporate holdings, and the very modern desire for consumers to have what they want when they want it.
There’s some Ferris Bueller to Crash Override giving a TV Network security stooge the “Abe Froman” treatment, and throwing on sunglasses as he traipses through the hidden circuitry of cyberspace. Yet the idea of accessing a TV network in order to watch an episode of The Outer Limits foresees the current era of DVRs and BitTorrent, when people are trying, often against The Man’s wishes, to dictate the terms. The fundamental appeal of Hackers—and this holds true of all Internet-based movie pleasures, guilty or otherwise, from War Games to The Social Network—is engaging in the nerd fantasy of having control over everything, of staging conquests through our computer terminals, not through hard labor or war or the terror of human interaction. And though it may involve the upending of corporate monoliths or totalitarian states, don’t think democracy’s coming: The New World Order means you’re probably all going to have to watch The Outer Limits, too.
Made in the spirit of rebel youth films past—think James Dean or a young Marlon Brando in the Miller role—Hackers celebrates every aspect of its computer-nerd subculture, from cyberpunk clubs with virtual-reality videogame competitions to inline skating to the hip slanguage and future-wear donned by Jolie and Matthew Lillard, whose look could be described as Janis Joplin meets Pippi Longstocking. Once Crash Override enters a new school and falls in with a group of like-minded geniuses—under the noms de hack Acid Burn (Jolie), Cereal Killer (Lillard), Phantom Phreak (Renoly Santiago), Lord Nikon (Laurence Mason), and, well, Joey (Jesse Bradford)—they get themselves into trouble worthy of their collective talents. While bouncing around a corporate site, Joey downloads a garbage file that contains the traces of a worm designed to pilfer millions of dollars from the company. It’s an inside job, orchestrated by security wizard Eugene Belford (a.k.a. The Plague) and an executive (Lorraine Bracco) who knows hilariously little about computers.
Played by Fisher Stevens, who viewers know as the star of that beloved piece of ’80s cultural flotsam Short Circuit, The Plague rivals Lillard’s Cereal Killer as the funniest character in Hackers, because they both embody the film’s overweening effort to be cool. He and Bracco’s clueless suit make a pair as incongruous as Mo’Nique and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Shadowboxer, but it’s his overall persona that’s striking in its aggressive cool. Given to wearing a long, black leather trench coat and zipping around on a skateboard, he’s the corporate flipside to Crash Override and his buddies—to put it in Simpsons terms, he’s like a self-made Poochie. There’s no more amusing five seconds in the film than The Plague picking up an incriminating disc at an after-hours rendezvous, Back To The Future-style:
Hackers has surfaced lately as a midnight movie, and it’s full of unintentionally funny moments—some that were probably there at the time, others that have emerged as the Internet has evolved past the glory days of Netscape and Alta Vista. Moreu reportedly studied cyberpunk culture closely, but his hackers speak in an invented shorthand, heavy with nonsense phrases like, “I bet it [a laptop] looks crispy in the dark” and “You’re in the butter zone.” And though the characters’ fetishization of the latest gadgetry is infectious, breathless conversations about technology that would look Paleolithic a few years later naturally invites some snickers in 2012:
Chuckle all you want about interminable bitrates and the three-character password (“GOD”) that stands between you and a cache of corporate secrets, but Hackers isn’t quite the silly artifact it appears to be. Moreu and Softley (Backbeat) may have failed to capture that elusive mid-’90s idea of future cool, but they succeeded in broadly profiling the coming generation of digital agitators. That combination of prankishness, resentment of authority, and moral relativity are all still present, as is the idealist impulse to break whatever shackles are holding us back and change the world—or, if that doesn’t work, just blow it to smithereens and start again, like the ending of Fight Club. The worlds of The Net and Disclosure stayed in the mid-’90s; the likes of Crash Overdrive, Acid Burn, and Cereal Killer are still with us under different handles, causing mischief and no doubt feeling smug about it, too.
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June 14: UHF