Friday, June 7, 2013

Movie – Hackers (1995)

Hackers is a film very much of its own time.  Because of rapid advancement in computer technology young people watching it today probably do not even understand some of the terms the characters are using.  The film has a bunch of references to the history of computers, the history of hacking, and the cyberpunk literature movement that was started in the 1980s.  As both a computer person and science fiction fan, I got a great deal of enjoyment from this film.  All of that paled in comparison to something else this film provided to me – it’s the first time I ever saw Angelina Jolie onscreen.

She’s not the only one I saw for the first time in Hackers, but she was the one who was most memorable to me (for obvious reasons – if not obvious, watch the video below).  Also in this film are: Jonny Lee Miller before he became Sick Boy in Trainspotting and Sherlock Holmes in the TV show Elementary; Matthew Lillard before he became Stuart in Scream and Shaggy in the Scooby-Doo films; and Jesse Bradford before he was in Bring It On.  Also watch for an early appearance of Felicity Huffman.

The film opens in the late 1980s with the trial of a hacker nicknamed Zero Cool who crashed over 1,500 systems in one day.  As the judge reads out all of his crimes, the camera pans around and we finally see the criminal, Dade Murphy…an eleven year old boy.  Until he turns 18 he is forbidden from using a computer or touch tone phone (probably only people my age remember “phreaking”).

The film then skips to the present day.  Dade (Miller) and his divorced mother Lauren (Alberta Watson – La Femme Nikita TV show) have just moved to New York City.  On his eighteenth birthday, while his mother has left for her job, Dade opens up a new laptop and finds a local TV station that is showing a movie he doesn’t like.  He calls the station, fakes his way to getting access to their computer system (a very common method of hacking then), and proceeds to have the station switch to a movie he wants to see instead.  He doesn’t get to enjoy it for long before he gets a message on his computer from someone named Acid Burn who had already hacked into the station prior to him and who was the one playing the prior movie.  The two have a battle on their computers until Acid Burn succeeds in expelling Dade – now going by the handle of Crash Override.

He enters school and meets Kate (Jolie), who is assigned to show him around to his classes.  He immediately becomes a babbling idiot, but recovers somewhat.  She drops him at his first class, and he discovers she is not in it.  That night he hacks the school’s computer to change his schedule to line up with hers.  Kate is not thrilled.  She also played a prank on him that first day, so he continues to tweak her when he can. 

Dade connects with the hacker subculture at the school and starts to make friends.  Among the group are “Cereal Killer” (Lillard) and Joey (Bradford).  Dade goes to a party at one of their houses, but wanders off from the main room.  He accidentally sees Kate bringing a boy into the room he is in.  They start to make out, Dade is discovered, but just then the other hackers come in.  They start a conversation and to Dade’s surprise Kate launches right into full-on “computerese” with them.  It turns out she is Acid Burn.  When he tells them he is Crash Override (keeping the notorious Zero Cool identity a secret) she is even more pissed off at him.  A relationship that was a simmering diversion becomes a burning, obsessive competition.

Just prior to these reveals, Joey hacked a Gibson supercomputer (a reference to William Gibson whose writings this movie pays homage to) and downloaded a file.  He doesn’t know what it is, but the Secret Service quickly descends on his home and arrests him.  He managed to hide a copy of it, though.  The group sets a competition between Dade and Kate to see who can do the best hack.  Their target: the leader of the team who arrested Joey.  At first it’s fun and games, but then they learn that things are a lot more serious.

The Gibson that was hacked belongs to an oil company.  Their head of computer security is a former hacker nicknamed The Plague (Fisher Stevens).  His assistant is Hal (a reference to the HAL9000 computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey), played by Penn Jillette.  Yes, the guy from Penn and Teller.  In the 90s he was almost as well known in computer circles for writing many knowledgeable articles on computers for major publications.

The Plague lets his company know that their system has been infected with a virus that will cause their oil tankers to capsize when it triggers.  They’ve only got a few days before that trigger will be unleashed.  That company is the one pushing the government to find the hacker.  We know that Joey is innocent, though.  So do his friends.  Dade and Kate put aside their differences to work together to figure out what that file is that Joey downloaded.  This brings them to the attention of The Plague.  Will he want their help?  Will he turn them in?

As I said at the top, the computer talk in this film is outdated.  My only real complaint with this film is that even at the time the movie came to video it felt a little ham-handed.  (It was also wrong when it was talking about the specs for the P6 chip that had actually not been released at the time the film came out, but that’s nitpicking.)  The dialogue was just intended to convey that Kate’s laptop was the height of badass computing power.

Speaking of badass, Jolie definitely hit the ground running in establishing she was both sexy and tough with her character in this film.  She sports a quasi-Romulan haircut in this film that both hits home with Star Trek fans, and also serves to emphasize her face, her eyes, and her soon to be famous lips.  The chemistry between her and Miller was quite something both on and off screen.  The two were married after this movie was filmed. 

If you think the people who use computers are just nerds, and a movie attempting to make them look cool would be silly, then you should probably steer clear of this movie.  For everyone else, especially fans of computers or cyberpunk writing, I highly recommend this film.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Note: the video below contains some scenes from Hackers with Angelina Jolie.  The first one shows Kate casually retrieving the hidden disk from a boy’s bathroom.  The woman who opens the door in the next scene is Dade’s mother.  I love the little acknowledgment that she knows her son has been obsessing over a girl, even though he won’t admit it.

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  1. Oh man, I love this film. I know some of the computer jargon is dated but it's still a fun film. That's where I discovered Angie and Jonny Lee Miller as well.

    Oh, eight years ago at a screening for Happy Endings w/ Jesse Bradford. I got meet him, I got his autograph and told him Hackers ruled!

    1. I really enjoyed it, too. Thanks for sharing the story about Bradford. Did he have any response?

    2. I don't remember. Whenever I get the chance to re-write my new review of Happy Endings. I'll add a note about my experience meeting him. I don't have a picture but I did get his autograph which I will keep since I don't want to be accused of profiting from him. Yet, he did tell me and another guy that he was up for a role in Flags of Our Fathers which he did get.

  2. Oh wow, this one takes me back. I was dating a comp sci major at the time and I remember how angry he got about the inaccuracies and ultra-glamorization in this film. Ah well, it was innocuously silly to me. For my part, it was about my first awareness of Jonny Lee Miller. I do like Jonny Lee Miller.

    1. People shouldn't get too hung up on the movies about things they are experts on. I remember you telling me a year or so ago that you shied away from movies about teachers (when I highly recommended To Sir, with Love). Lawyers probably don't watch lawyer shows and cops probably don't watch cop shows. One of the things I liked about Castle in the early days was how they made fun of other detective shows for glamorizing things and how stuff took a lot longer to get results than what you saw on those shows.

      "I do like Jonny Lee Miller."

      And I know you now like the BBC show Sherlock. Did you watch Miller's show Elementary? It's the same concept - modern day Sherlock Holmes, but that's about where the similarities end. If you didn't see it, you may want to give it a chance. After the first 2 or 3 episodes I was a little doubtful about it, but then they improved and I ended up watching it for the season. It's not as good as Sherlock, but it is still entertaining to me (and I don't have the added bonus that you would have from liking Miller.)

    2. Yes, I've enjoyed Elementary. I still need to watch the second half of the season, but that's what DVR and summer vacation is for. I agree it's very good (not as good as Sherlock), but intriguing and I actually really like Lucy Liu as well.

    3. The last few episodes of Elementary were quite good, although they upset the Holmes' purists. Strangely, having read every single Conan Doyle Holmes story I should be a purist, too, but I didn't have an issue with this shows' take on two well known characters from the Holmes' canon. I actually liked it. Miller does quite a good job in those episodes.

      So now I'm teasing the season ender of this show, too. I've been teasing the end of Castle season 4 to you for a while. Have you seen it? If so, what did you think?

    4. Gah, no, I've not seen the end of Castle S4. I'm about a third of the way through S4. Again, SUMMER VACATION!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      I've never been a Holmes purist, having barely read much of Doyle's original works. Frankly, what amazes me about both Elementary and Sherlock is how well, with just a few tweaks, the characters manage to leap 150+ years in the future and still WORK. They are both very strong adaptations, for sure.

      I have another online friend who is positively gaga about Elementary. I know I need to finish watching s1 if only for her sake.

  3. I haven't seen that movie in years Chip! Even today its computer hacking is more realistic than Swordfish.

    1. "Even today its computer hacking is more realistic than Swordfish."

      Waitaminnit, you mean someone can't hack into the Department of Defense in under a minute while having a gun held to their head and while simultaneously receiving oral sex from Halle Berry? So, I've been trying to improve my computer skills all these years for nothing? Way to kill a man's dream (the Halle Berry part, not the gun to the head part). :-)