Before she took on the the Tomb Raider’s mantle and he adopted the role of the World’s Greatest Detective, Angelina Jolie and Jonny Lee Miller tackled a different kind of adventure-mystery in some of their earliest feature film performances: one that takes place in the digital realm rather than the physical one. While initially received with mixed reviews, two decades later, Hackers has now become something of a cult classic that in retrospect seems to simply have been ahead of its time. While this film’s fanciful imagination and garish view of the future still contribute to some lack of realism and unsettling plot holes, the values, intentions, and exploits of the hacker community are depicted with surprising accuracy and premonition.
In an era when the Internet was still rudimentary and unfamiliar compared to its ubiquity and accessibility today, the notion of battling corporate corruption with simple text-based operating systems from the comfort of one’s own darkened bedroom as depicted in this mid-’90s film would have seemed admittedly absurd, yet today, Hackers is almost prophetic of the kind of hacktivism that groups like Anonymous and organizations like WikiLeaks engage in today. In Hackers, a group of young computer enthusiasts unwittingly uncover a nefarious plot involving a computer virus that will cause a global catastrophe, they must band together and use their considerable programming skills to reveal what they’ve found to the world, all the while with the authorities on their tails, pegged as criminals for invading the privacy of big corporations.
When our protagonist, 18-year-old Dade “Zero Cool” (and later, “Crash Override”) Murphy (Jonny Lee Miller), is released from his seven-year sentence that banned him from using computing technology of any kind, including touch-tone phones, due to the infamous hack he performed at the mere age of 11 that crippled Wall Street, it’s clear that this computer prodigy has not lost any of his edge. Furiously typing away at his keyboard in the middle of the night, and oddly wearing sunglasses while doing so, Dade dexterously hacks a TV network in order to replace a televised speaker’s bigoted ranting with an episode of The Outer Limits. Immediately in this opening sequence, hacking is established not as a menace to society, but as a force for good performed by only the coolest, savviest, and most well-intentioned of people.
Dade is quickly drawn into a group of fellow hackers at his new school, including the beguilingly androgynous Kate “Acid Burn” Libby (Angelina Jolie) and the young neophyte Joey Pardella (Jesse Bradford) who, in his eagerness to prove his skills and impress the others, hacks into a “Gibson” supercomputer and unintentionally downloads evidence of a computer virus designed to cause a massive ecological disaster. This virus is somehow intended to help its creator, the clichéd yet menacing trenchcoated villain, former hacker and now big business techie Eugene “The Plague” Belford, accomplish a corporate takeover, yet precisely how is unclear.
While the headliners of the film, Miller and especially Jolie, are now some of the most recognized actors in Hollywood, the side characters offer greater appeal and dimension. The antagonistic romance budding between Dade and Kate results in a frustratingly nondescript stoicism, whereas the hackers known as “Cereal Killer” (Matthew Lillard) and “The Phantom Phreak” (Renoly Santiago) provide much of the film’s humor and heart. While in some ways these characters are over-the-top, Lillard taking the goofy stoner persona to the extreme, for example, as is his wont, their high-energy antics are far more endearing than the aloofness and contrived animosity between the leading couple.
It’s true that the version of the counter-cultural movement guided by the mantra “Hack the Planet” envisioned by writer Rafael Moreu and director Iain Softley may be a bit over-the-top, as the bright, gaudy colors of the punk-inspired attire and the habit of congregating at a hip skatepark club, a harbor for the meeting of the “elite” hacker minds to exchange ideas, never became a reality for the hacker community, which instead tends to be filled with more subdued and introverted individuals who team up with other hackers digitally rather than physically.
Hackers does, however, capture the spirit of hacking as a love of adventure, discovery, and the open sharing of information. From the little details of the thrill on Dade’s and his associates’ faces in the glow of their computer screens to the outright inclusion of excerpts from the Hackers’ Manifesto, extolling the “beauty of the baud” and claiming only the crime of curiosity, the genuine desire for the free flow information is unmistakable.
Hackers admirably attempts to infuse a bit of the action and thrill hackers experience into what is really, on film, the rather uninteresting activity of furiously typing away at a keyboard. Intercutting shots of Dade at his computer with snippets of action sequences from other classic films, we get a glimpse into the way he sees hacking: as an exciting adventure. The use of somewhat crude and outdated graphics, which are nonetheless rather innovative for the time, visualize the Internet as a kind of urban metropolis in which a circuit board comes to life as the flow of information lights up the roadways and skyscrapers. While these attempts to make the excitement of the cyberspace experience accessible to non-techies of the ‘90s may have only seen moderate success, they reflect a sense of optimism and hope for what the future of the Internet might bring, and they would likely resonate with today’s technology-immersed audiences.
The special features included in this 20th anniversary Blu-ray release, while haphazardly organized and ambiguously titled with apparently unrelated fragments of the Hackers’ Manifesto, do provide some valuable insights into the choices made by the filmmakers, such as the bizarre hodgepodge of costuming styles. They also heavily emphasize the endeavor to maintain technological accuracy and a faithfulness to the mission of hacking as a form of democratic social activism. The range of interview subjects, however, is rather narrow, and Jolie and Miller, the two people from whom most fans would most wish to hear, are conspicuously absent, while Lillard, the only actor to appear, provides some astute observations on the making of the film and its impact 20 years later.
While Hackers’ substance may be overshadowed by a focus on style, whether in the flashy, sci-fi, cyber-punk costuming, the exaggerated, affected hacker slang, or the attempt to merge the physical world with the digital one with rough special effects, the great value of this cult classic is its foretelling of the power of the Internet to help the little guys battle the corrupt Goliaths of the world and sponsor open access to the free flow of information that should not be kept secret. The “Hack the World” philosophy is all about the right to information, which makes Hackers remarkably relevant to audiences today.