Alibi V.24 No.4 • Jan 22-28, 2015 

Film Review

Blackhat

When it comes to information technology, Hollywood just can’t hack it; or the history of bad computer movies in one review

Blackhat

Directed by Michael Mann

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Wei Tang

Hollywood has long been fascinated with computers. Usually, they’re evil and want to kill us. There have been, by way of representative sample, the murderous HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the world-conquering Colossus in Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) and the sexually inappropriate Proteus IV in Demon Seed (1977). Things evolved in 1983, however, when we got the high-tech thriller WarGames. Sure, we still had the implausibly named supercomputer WOPR—who, like its predecessors, was intent on wiping out humanity. But we also got, as our protagonist, underachieving computer nerd David Lightman (a very young Matthew Broderick). Suddenly the age of the hacker as hero was born.

Fascinated by this new species of genius and the soon-to-be meteoric rise of computer technology, the movie industry sat up and took notice. In the decades since, we’ve had dozens of computer-oriented thrillers, usually with improbably skilled (and improbably good-looking) computer geniuses front and center. WarGames actually spotlighted some down-to-earth tech skills (Broderick, for example, phreaking a pay phone with a soda can pull tab—causing today’s audiences to wonder what a pay phone and a pull tab are). By contrast, films since then have gone out of their way to highlight ridiculously unrealistic technology and a minimal understanding of how computer programming actually works.

The year 1995 was something of a watershed in the history of computer movies. First we got The Net with Sandra Bullock. Bullock played a systems analyst who stumbles across a vast online conspiracy involving this thing called “the internet.” Director Irwin Winkler tried his best to spice things up. After typing at a computer terminal for 10 minutes or so, Bullock was obliged to get up, run somewhere really fast and type at a different computer for a while. The film effectively pointed out the main problem with movies about computers.

Despite the rocky history, Hollywood is still fascinated by computers and the people who poke at them. Unfortunately, they still haven’t worked out the kinks.

Also in 1995, we got Hackers, a sexy look at teenagers with crazy online aliases (Zero Cool, Crash Override, Acid Burn) battling the Secret Service as well as an evil computer genius. Jonny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie played the teenage hackers, setting the precedent for unrealistically hot nerds in movies. The film also created the cliché of rendering data in cool 3D geometric images that computer users can magically fly through like they’re in Tron. Movies love that visual—but to this day computers still deal primarily in long strings of boring, incomprehensible characters. Hackers has its lovers and its detractors, and has become something of a cult film in the intervening years—partially for its neon-soaked, ’90s-style visuals and partially for its occasionally realistic depiction of the tedious work real hackers have to deal with.

Swordfish showed up in 2001 with sexy hackers Hugh Jackman, John Travolta and Halle Berry in tow. The movie’s logline was “Log on. Hack in. Go anywhere. Steal everything.” Clearly, the filmmakers believed it was just that easy. At one point Jackman breaks in to a government computer system in 60 seconds while getting a blow job and having a gun pointed at his head. How’s that for realism? But the film does feature Halle Berry’s first topless scene. So there’s that.

Chris Hemsworth (Thor from The Avengers) plays Nick Hathaway, a legendary computer hacker who, like all real-life computer hackers, is a devastatingly sexy hunk of well-muscled beefcake and not some oily teen in a Skrillex t-shirt jacked up on Bawls.

Despite the rocky history, Hollywood is still fascinated by computers and the people who poke at them. Unfortunately, they still haven’t worked out the kinks. Most recently, crime thriller king Michael Mann (Thief, Manhunter, Heat, Collateral, Miami Vice) was lured by the dull hum of the computer monitor and found himself directing the high-tech thriller Blackhat. To be blunt, it’s one of Mann’s worst films. Mann has always had an ability to blend the gritty and the glossy. There are moments in Blackhat when the old Mann seeps through the seams—a thrilling car chase here or a well-choreographed gun battle there. But for the most part, Blackhat is pure Hollywood silliness.

Chris Hemsworth (Thor from The Avengers) plays Nick Hathaway, a legendary computer hacker who, like all real-life computer hackers, is a devastatingly sexy hunk of well-muscled beefcake and not some oily teen in a Skrillex t-shirt jacked up on Bawls. Seems some “black hat” computer hacker has keyboarded his way into a nuclear power plant in Taiwan and is threatening to blow it sky high. Is this a new form of cyberterrorism or just a distraction from some larger, eviler, more computer-hackery crime? (The answer will bore you.) No matter; our man Nick is the only one who can stop it from happening. Why? Eh, reasons. Unfortunately, he’s locked away in prison. So the CIA busts him out and sends him to Asia to kick some ass, slap some computers and romance a cute Chinese girl. Why? Mostly because China co-financed this movie.

What follows is 133 minutes of pseudo James Bond action as our computer hero jets from China to Indonesia to Malaysia and parts of America trying to stop this digital crime spree. How does he accomplish that? Mostly by shooting and punching people. Oddly enough, his computer skills aren’t on display very often. Fortunately—again, like all computer nerds—Nick is an expert hand-to-hand fighter and a master of firearms. Hey, it’s not that computer nerds can’t be good-looking or proficient in other areas—it’s just that the more Blackhat tries to justify the existence of this six-foot-five Australian superhero, the dumber it gets. Seriously, he’s like Jason Bourne, James Bond, MacGyver and the cast of “The Big Bang Theory” all rolled into one. When he does get his hands on a computer, he bangs away at it with the now-requisite superhuman typing skills. In the minds of Hollywood screenwriters, press one button on a keyboard and a computer will intuitively perform dozens of functions, vomiting up the exact information you need and giving you a kaleidoscopic visual display to boot.

Mann does his best to hype up the action, plunging his camera’s eye deep into the guts of various computers, watching glowing blips of data race from circuit to circuit, flashing and buzzing and turning into numbers along the way. Computer can do that? It’s a noble attempt to jazz things up. But it’s also vaguely ridiculous and doesn’t cover up for the fact that watching people sit at computers and type is as boring now as it was back in 1995 when Sandy Bullock did it.