I’ve always been highly critical of the "computers can do anything" mentality in movies. I abhor the clichés of keyboards smoking when a machine malfunctions or the destruction of a monitor in order to stop the doomsday program that the computer is running. I was squirming in my seat throughout The Net and yelling at the screen in Independence Day (if aliens are going to have any OS compatible with something manmade, it’s going to be Amiga-based).
Maybe it’s that Hackers doesn’t try to over-explain and keeps the "dual risk processor with the virtual reality chip"† hooey to a minimum. Some terms are thrown around and misused, sure (at one point a 28.8 baud modem is oohed and awwed at), but tech talk is, instead, more metaphoric and gives an onomatopoetic feel to the hipster jargon.
Jonny Lee Miller (Sickboy from Trainspotting) stars as Dade Murphyan old school hacker who, at age 11, was found guilty of wreaking havoc with a virus he created and prohibited from using a computer or touch tone phone until he turned 18. Coming to the age of consent finds Dade and his mom moving to New York for his last year of high school where he falls in with a cyber-savvy crowd. Apparently, the ban on phones and ’pooters hasn’t kept Dade in the DOS dayshe’s down with the terms, the required reading and proves his mettle in a flirtatious melee with the incredible high school hottie Kate Libby (Angelina Jolie).
Meanwhile, another teen trying to get in with the out crowd, Joey (Jesse Bradford), attempts to show his hacking know-how and inadvertently copies the wrong file from the wrong system leaving a trail so obvious that he might as well have sent an email to the FBI with his name, address, and telephone number. The real problems start, however, when the sysop of the hacked company, Eugene Belford (Fisher Stevensplaying it completely over-the-top), discovers that the file Joey copied is the super-secret "worm" file (much like those found in Superman III and Office Space) that Eugene and his partner-in-crime Margo (Lorraine Bracconever looking worse with her horrible make-up job) are using to rip off their employers. Got that? Things are complicated even more when Eugene comes up with a virus that threatens to capsize several oil tankers and claims that Joey planted it in the system. Still with me? Yeah, the plot’s a little convoluted and it tends to get a lot denser before it becomes the "righteous hackers on the run from The Man while saving the environment from the evil corporate-plundering systems operator" flick that it threatens to be.
There’s a lot going on in this hyperactive 105-minute film and director Iain Softly juggles the multiple subplots and characters well. With its techno score and visual representations of computer inner-workings (which was so badly done in Johnny Mnemonic), Hackers runs the risk of being too hip for its own good but doesn’t cross the line by keeping things fun. And nothing is more fun in Hackers than Matthew Lillard who provides highly effective comic relief as ritalin-deficient Emmanuel "Cereal Killer" Goldstein††, a font of energy and one-liners.
Lillard’s performance is a standout but everyone in Hackers does a good job of playing semi-cartoonish characters, even the interminably annoying Penn Jillette. And, I swear Jonny Lee Miller is doing a dead-on vocal impersonation of Matthew Broderick, which certainly wouldn’t be the only tie between Hackers and War Games.
In 1983, Matthew Broderick’s David Lightman was one of the first hackers with which audiences sympathized. The hapless hero of John Badham’s War Games introduced the phun of using computers to get something for nothing to folks outside the circle of kids collecting phone books and posting flames to their bulletin boards. David was the prototype for a generation that wanted to know how they could send messages to hot chicks in their computer lab (as Andrew McCarthey did for Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink).
Personally, my curiosity was piqued with David’s antics, especially his use of a pull-tab to make a free phone call. After that I put away my Atari 2600 and talked my parents into shooting the works and getting a Commodore 128 so that I could emulate my new heroes; those scrappy go-getters, TV’s "The Whiz Kids", who, of course, used their computer prowess for good and not for malicious shenanigans.
It’s easy to look back at War Games and laugh at the rudimentary technology but Dade and David are compatriots in their quest for free phone calls, cracked software and access to their school’s computer. The biggest differences after the twelve years between War Games and Hackers are the incredibly cheaper prices for RAM and the apparent end to the Cold War; best evidenced by the hackers’ struggle to protect the environment instead of avoiding a nuclear war. And I suppose it should be noted that David Lightman didn’t have a cool logon ID like "Crash Override" or "Zero Cool."
The popularity of War Games and the possibility of turning on girls like Ally Sheedy (back when she was looking a lot better) with one’s geekiness helped make the cyber subculture a little more acceptable. This also allowed me to believe that the hacking culture had proliferated so much that a Kate Libby could be an active participant in it and not just the product of a nerd’s graphic-novel inspired dream.
Instead, Kate is an independent and strong-willed young woman. Sexy while attempting to desexualize herself with her gender-ambiguous dress, she doesn’t back down from any of the challenges with which she’s presented. Kate even bests Dade, despite his experience. Her greatest strength, though, is that she knows her limits. When faced with taking down Eugene’s virus it is she who seeks to employ a worldwide community of hackers.
The lesson of strength in numbers and maintaining one’s independence while working for the greater good with a group is one that Dade must learn over the course of the film. As Mikki Haplin discussed in her web movie article, Hackers has a theme of socialization: in the beginning Dade is quite a loner (just like Eugene) who even admits that he "doesn’t play well with others." Dade and Eugene are two sides of the same coinlong-term hackers who’ve got the skyllz to steal mill$. Eugene compares he and Dade to electronic cowboys who have the knowledge and power to control the cattle crowds of technophobes (normal folks). It isn’t until Dade commits to joining forces with his computer-savvy brethren that he proves that he’s looking for a life larger than his monitor.
Dade need merely to look at his rag-tag group of friends to see that one can be independent while being part of a larger group. Their interest in computers aside, it appears that each of the hacker characters are alike in their upbringing. Perhaps their disdain of authority comes from a lack of paternal figures in their lives. Of the four characters known to have parents, only their mothers are seen or mentioned.
Dade and Eugene are, I suppose, what David Lightman could have grown up to become (though Dade would have only been five when David was running around Colorado trying to stop the W.O.P.R. from blowing the world to smithereens). Thought David had both parents, they weren’t involved in his life or his interests and after Mrs. Lightman fed her husband raw corn on the cob a few more times, they were certainly headed for divorce.
† Laughable line courtesy of Ving Rhames in Mission: Impossible
†† Emmanuel Goldstein is a character in George Orwell’s 1984 as well as the pseudonym of the editor of the zine 2600, who is rumored to have served as a technical consultant on the film.