Monday, July 12, 2010

Hackers, the movie

Remember the movie WarGames? Matthew Broderick is a teenaged phone phreak/pre-World Wide Web hacker (in the non-cracking sense) who almost causes World War III when he interfaces with a nearly intelligent supercomputer running the military's war games simulations.

It's a silly film in a lot of ways, unsurprisingly so since it was made in 1983. Yet I can still enjoy it today because Broderick and co-star Ally Sheedy are charming naifs, and the special effects didn't overwhelm the story.

The same can't be said of 1995's Hackers, a cross between WarGames and a bad music video, with echoes of Tron thrown into the mix. It has a cast that would go on to do much better (or at least bigger) things, including a young Angelina Jolie, Matthew Lillard, Lorraine Bracco (later of The Sopranos), Penn Jillette, and a surprisingly flappable Wendell Pierce (later my favorite rumpled detective, Bunk Moreland, on The Wire and currently the roguish Antoine Batiste on Treme).

That's where the upside ends.

The plot is not just beyond silly, the crime at the center of it is recycled from what my viewings of Office Space tell me is Superman III (coincidentally, another film from 1983). The teenaged hacker heroes all have mad skills, of course, and hack banks just for kicks (and over dialup, to boot). (The lead hacker, portrayed by Jonny Lee Miller, is supposed to have engineered the largest exploit of all time -- when he was eleven. The exploit resembles, in broad form, Robert Morris' famed Internet worm of 1989, but the plot has to go Morris one better not just by making Miller's character half Morris' age, but by setting the fictional exploit a year earlier, in 1988.) The jargon, some realistic and some less so, flies thick and fast in an unsuccessful attempt to dazzle the audience. Above all, the desire to make the hackers not just heroic, but edgy, just renders them cartoonish.

The effects are absurd. The vocoder-ed "Joshua" was intrusive in WarGames, but the overblown virtual environment of every major computer system in Hackers is teeth-gnashingly stupid. The conceit of visually transitioning between the real cityscape and the virtual chip-scape is rooted in the same kind of thinking that keeps bringing us bad user-interface metaphors, like the clunky emulation of a real notepad in the iPhone Notes application.

It's sad to see that in twelve years, Hollywood didn't get better at delivering a film about hacking. Quite the contrary: Hollywood got worse at it, significantly worse.

In his review of this film, Roger Ebert addresses criticisms like mine in his first two paragraphs:
`Hackers" wasn't even in theaters before attacks on it started online. It represents a new genre, "hacksploitation," Mac expert Andy Ihnatko grumbled on CompuServe, adding that like a lot of other computer movies it achieves the neat trick of projecting images from computer screens onto the faces of their users, so that you can see graphics and data crawling up their chins and breaking over their noses.

This grinching illustrates my theory that you should never send an expert to a movie about his specialty. Boxers hate boxing movies. Space buffs said "Apollo 13" showed the wrong side of the moon. The British believe Mel Gibson's scholarship was faulty in "Braveheart" merely because some of the key characters hadn't been born at the time of the story.

Maybe so, maybe so. But I prefer to think that we need to push Hollywood harder until it gets hacking right. I refuse to believe it's not possible.

No comments:

Post a Comment