Tuesday, April 19, 2016

90's Watch: Hackers (1995)



In February of 1919, some of the greats of the silent era - Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith - came together to found their own studio: United Artists.  The studio was formed in reaction to studio and artist friction over salaries and creative control.  One could say that the idea of an artist's ability to produce an independent vision is baked into the DNA of UA, and, over the years, that spirit has brought us new perspectives to the silver screen, bold proclamations of artists unhampered by the small minds of businessmen, free from the the penny-pinching dream killers of accounting.

So, it should come as no surprise that, some 76 years later, UA would bring us a truly unique dream of the 90's, a clarion call to a generation, a mirror held up to reality showing us truths about ourselves in only the way we can truly get from a masterpiece like Hackers (1995).

This is maybe one of the worst movies I've seen in the last ten years.


No, I'd never seen Hackers before.  I know.  Somehow all of you people seem to have watched this movie, apparently wishing to get caught up in the high-energy hi-jinks of a team of 90's-tastic magazine-ad models at battle with Fisher Stevens as a grown man who wants to be called "The Plague" in company meetings and somehow Lorraine Bracco's character, a high powered PR exec, finds him sexually appealing.

The 90's was an odd time for computers in movies.  People were becoming aware of a new ubiquity to computers, and "the world wide web" was a phrase being used a lot on TV, and perfectly with-it adults were not really clear on what it was or what it was supposed to be.  After all, we'd all functioned perfectly well without the internet up to this point, so... what were people doing out there, exactly?

Hollywood got in their scare-mongering movie early with Sandra Bullock's The Net (I've not seen this, either).   But Hackers came on the scene as pro-internet, jumping on the bandwagon as the culture made a quantum shift from thinking of computers as something only nerds used in their downtime to a lifestyle choice seen as edgy and unknowable to the normals.  The works of folks like William Gibson gave the public some ideas for what they might be able to do, living alternate lives in the shadows.  People used "handles" instead of real names and had avatars and people basically thought it would all turn into what became Second Life.  It was all a glittering future of sexy beer commercial lifestyle and wearing sunglasses in dark rooms while you watched fractals and drank smart drinks and listened to breakbeat.

So, there's context there when you watch this movie.  And what's odd is that it gets about 1 out of every six things it does or says right, like 90's Russian roulette.  The movie doesn't seem to understand that "hackers" do not require that they share physical space or all attend the same high school (or look 25 in high school).  And it absolutely sets the story in a high school, which seems like a huge distraction.

It's intensely caught up in selling the idea that hacking is radical righteousness, that hackers are somehow a force for good, which, yes!  they can be.  While also ignoring the pain in the ass that internet security was in the mid-90's and on thanks to bored kids and Russians performing Denial of Service attacks just because they had nothing better to do.  Throw in estimated $400,000 in damages our hero causes in his own high school by setting off a sprinkler system (here's a thing.  You don't want sprinkler systems to need to be hooked up to electricity to work, but nevermind that), and during the lead up tho the film's climax, they set all the lights in Manhattan to "green", causing untold damage to cars, life and limb in order to more effectively rollerblade to their destination.

Really, by the end of the movie, I couldn't help but be on the hapless FBI agent's side and kind of hate all of the main characters.  The fact that the movie doesn't want to acknowledge is that the hackers really are mucking up safety and commerce.  There's literally no strain of the altruistic in the movie - it's a libertarian view that quickly slides directly into anarchism right in the heart of Manhattan.  It's unclear as the movie wraps up why or how all of them aren't going to jail for a long, long time.  They may be in cyber-warfare with Fisher Stevens, but everything they do to protect themselves is - technically - very much against the law.  Being "right" about Fisher Stevens being a force for ickiness doesn't actually give you the right to break into the systems at a Fortune 500 company.  Whether Stevens is there or no after the denouement, there are going to be a lot of logfiles to point right at you and your buddies committing a felony.

It's tough to say the characters even care about each other.  Covering their own hides, yes.  Getting help to do better hacking?  Sure.  Trying to sex the one female in the movie?  Check.  But when one of them is thrown in jail, he's simply never mentioned again.

The movie stars a bunch of actors for whom I have no affinity.  Angelina Jolie pioneering the sulky teen Kristen Stewart would emulate in life and film, Matthew Lillard, obnoxious to the point of punchability, Johnny Lee Miller - alt-girl eye candy doing a very strange accent, Fisher Stevens who is always forcing the fact he's Fisher Stevens upon us... and there are probably other people.  Wendell Pierce is in it playing a character his actual current age, but he's, like, 12 here.

Like all movies about computers or technology in the 90's, they really took that goddamn Arthur C. Clarke quote about "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." and ran with it.  They copied and pasted a lot of jargon out of early issues of Wired, decided Unix code was too boring to show, and made gigantic, ugly graphics on monitors...  In what was truly a weird decision:  you only see anything that's actual code show up for maybe two or three seconds of the movie.  Most of the time it's sort of chimpy looking CG of neon colored geometric structures, some fractals, and, most odd, what appear to be mathematical formulas where code should be.  Ie: the people making this movie did not think code or commands were sexy enough, but math was amazing to look at.

The movie wants to be almost a lifestyle movie, telling the kids "we're hip to you and your internets!  We're talking your language!"  But - the characters are terrible and the acting mostly so broad it's more vaudeville than cartoonish (thanks, Matt Lillard!).   The villains' plot is more or less a riff on Gus' oil shipment heist in Superman III, and - in what should have been workshopped much harder - makes little to no sense, so even in basic ways, there's nothing underneath all the veneer to hold the structure up.  And, my God.  The plotholes.  The giant, gaping plotholes right from "and he's familiar with modern systems in 1995 because of... why?"

Throw in some editing choices for MTV style in the first fifteen minutes, and then after everyone's established, all of that goes away and it performs and looks like a low-mid-budget 90's movie (which it is), plodding along telling a nonsensical story about absurd characters and hoping the fact that Angelina Jolie is sulky and bra-less will be enough to make you stay focused.  But, yeah, the first, I dunno, fifteen minutes is all trick edits and spliced in images, and then they just ran out of patience or something, or the studio told them to knock it off.

People tell me I might have liked the movie marginally better back in the 90's, but... I doubt it.  And I kind of knew then - after all, this movie came out around the time I was at the theater 2-3x per week and saw almost everything, and I still didn't bother with this one.   Like a good little Gen-X'er, I was suspicious of anything actually advertised at me (except for OK Soda), and watching subculture get co-opted by marketing companies was practically a sport back then (ask me about "Surge" soda sometime and its gawdawful marketing campaign).

I didn't even find the movie fun.  I just kind of had nothing better to do, and I figured I'd at least be complete in my viewing of the movie.

If the movie did get anything right, it was some of the music, some of the more clever hacks I remember from back then (like recording tones from pay phones and playing them back, or generally messing with pay phones in general), and, one could argue that the movie gets the power of a large, anonymous (cough) hacking corpus working for justice.

Also, this movie is ridiculously sexist.  I'm too tired to begin coming up with examples, but, just know it makes the wrong decision at every possible opportunity.  Also - richly homophobic.  So, about right for a good amount of the folks currently dwelling online.

Circa 1997, my roommate was working on his Senior Thesis, and in many ways, the film reminded me of some of what he was trying to say about the conflagration of hacker culture, rave culture, temporary communities and fluid identity.  I don't remember much about it, but some of the utopianism he saw in both technology and the social culture of the era, I saw through different eyes.  We may have both been half-right.  I dunno.  He's now an internet privacy wonk in DC, and I'm just a dude running a team running servers. But it doesn't exactly feel like we're all ready for sexy fun time when we're telling people to try turning their computers off and on again.

2 comments:

J.S. said...

I remember thinking this movie was totally ridiculous even back when it came out (or when it first came out on video). That being said, I just watched the trailer for it, and this stuff looks totally ripe for MST3K type treatment.

Ryan Steans said...

Lemme see what Doug knows about these things...