The Eerie and Relevant Prescience of 'Hackers'
25 Years After Its Release, the Film Remains One of the Most Urgent and Accurate Looks at Power and Resistance in Cinema
Twenty-five years ago today, Hackers was released. Audiences got to see a big-screen Hollywood look at cyberactivism, watch Crash and Burn go from rival hackers to a couple, hear a collection of fantastic electronic songs, and were introduced to the iconic words: “Hack the planet!” If you know me at all you know that I love Iain Softely's 1995 film. I missed it in theaters and only saw it for the first time a few years ago but it quickly became one of my favorites. It's fun, stylish, the ensemble has amazing chemistry and it's also one of the single most relevant films for our times.
In 2015, for the 20th anniversary of the movie, I wrote on Medium about the film's progressive elements, from deep politics about activism and the corporate-security complex to its diverse casting. Five years since I wrote that, the film has been worming its way through my mind (“A worm and a virus? The plot thickens.”) as more and more parts of it echo through the present. I was lucky enough to see the film again in theaters in January, before everything shut down, and the movie holds up very well. Yes, some of the tech specs are woefully outdated in our digital cloud, smartphone-filled world. Yes, the fashion choices are a bit extreme. But the movie is thrilling, the cast is fantastic, Simon Boswell's score is thrilling and the plot works, especially because of its politics. Softley and co. were not predicting the future, but they did tap into emerging trends that would metastasize in the years since Hackers' release.
By all accounts, Hackers should have been vapid mid-1990s cinema, something cashing in on what was seen as a fad or subculture, the way we got so many rollerblading and extreme sports films at the time. The Internet was already getting that treatment; the same year as Hackers came out, the far more pulpy The Net came out. In a way, Hackers operates like Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break. This is not a movie made to be campy or a so-bad-it's-good film. Yes, the premise is a bit silly, and yes there is humor within the film, but the actual stakes and tension in the film are played straight. Characters like Dade Murphy, AKA Zero Cool AKA Crash Override (Jonny Lee Miller), Kate “Acid Burn” Libby (Angelina Jolie) and Lord Nikon (Laurence Mason) are dynamic, interesting and are not played as stereotypes or overly cool. In Hackers' case, that internal seriousness about its plot and characters allows it to go beyond just being about an emerging subculture and into some strong social commentary on power and activism. Screenwriter Rafael Moreu had become fascinated by computer hacks and early digital culture and he did his research when crafting the script. The Hacker Manifesto is name-dropped and quoted in the movie.
The most striking part of the film is its firm embrace of direct action and resistance from the public. After all, when you boil down the plot, the story of Hackers is of a diverse group of young, politically engaged activists preventing Wall Street executives from staging an environmental disaster as cover for white collar crime, all while evading the abusive force of law enforcement happily helping Wall Street. That's downright radical these days.
Maybe that's more of an indictment of the playing-it-safe, focus group-tested Hollywood of the 21st century, but it also speaks to something Moreu and Softley saw as issues that would grow over the years. The film's climax, where the hackers rush to locate and leak a file exposing white collar crime and embezzlement, now brings to mind the kind of digital whistleblowing we're seeing these days. Not just the exposure of since-ruled-unconstitutional surveillance programs by Edward Snowden, but more recent revelations in things such as the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers, where digital leaks brought to light massive money laundering and fraud schemes done by wealthy politicians and executives.
Another unnerving part of the film is its depiction of how violently law enforcement takes down hackers. Most of these raids on screen are full of heavily armed SWAT teams violently busting in on young adults and teenagers with guns drawn. These raids were not some wild fantasy cooked up by the writers — they in part lead to the rise of digital rights and legal defense groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation; and extreme state violence against dissidents is well documented — but they also show how the state will use overwhelming force to not only go after someone but scare others from acting. At times it can be odd that the Secret Service lets Ellingson Mineral's security officer The Plague (Fisher Stevens), the actual mastermind of the plot, take the lead on investigating suspects, but look around at 2020, does the divide between big tech, Wall Street and the United States' surveillance apparatus look that strong? A former head of the NSA is now sitting on Amazon's board of directors. Digital home security systems like Ring are partnered with police departments. Major tech investors advise the White House and help with expanding the national security world into the digital realm. The Plague's plot to rip off his own employer and cover his tracks with an oil spill blamed on innocent hackers almost works because of how easily he is able to manipulate attention-hungry, short-tempered Secret Service agents such as Richard Gill (Wendell Pierce).
In my Medium post for the 20th anniversary, I pointed to an early scene in the movie where Dade, in his first hack as an adult and his first as Crash Override, takes over a TV station replacing a far-right nativist bigot's talk show with a classic episode of The Outer Limits. Since then we've seen neofascist groups reemerge with greater confidence, with Neo Nazis marching through cities, a far-right president elected spouting a fascist “America First” ideology and activists and people on the left criticized for not being “civil” to people enacting xenophobic policies our spouting hate. Well since rewatching Hackers I noticed something: The show Crash Override pulls of the air with his hack? It was called America First. Yes, the term goes back to early 20th century fascists in America but it is more unsettling when the president repeatedly invokes it. It's not just a playful hack to get better TV, it's direct resistance and antifascism in action, working to stop ideologies of hate.
Then there is Hackers' look at digital life itself. Sure, most people are online for apps and social media, not hacking the Gibson while cruising through a cyberspace that looks like Manhattan (a genius design touch by the filmmakers). And much of the hacking is about social engineering and tricking people into giving them access. But Hackers also had a pretty good look at how people would express themselves online, and how that would be commodified. When Cereal Killer (Matthew Lillard, just making the oddball feel real and alive with every twitch and character tic) says in an over the top way that “we have no names, we are nameless” when talking about credit cards, it's hard not to laugh at his tone but also think of the way our data, both in the information we enter into websites and the metadata of our phones and photos are secretly gathered and sold by governments and corporations. The various hacker names the characters go by — Lord Nikon, the Phantom Phreak, Razor and Blade — would be indistinguishable from the social media handles we use today. Even online virality comes into play, with Dade's past as Zero Cool, and his hack gaining myth in tech-savvy circles (if there's one plot hole in the film it's that Nikon, who has photographic memory, can recall the exact New York Times front pages covering Dade's hack, but didn't know who Dade was, despite cameras at the trial). Even the climax, when a collective of hackers from around the world team up to flood the Gibson with viruses to stop the Plague isn't that far off from the mass online mobilization we see today.
Hackers came out at a time when the digital realm was still relatively new and the world was shifting from a Cold War polarity to a finance-run system. So much of the world has changed, but the underlying currents of the mid-1990s have become some of the dominant threads of our time today, and Softley's movie saw not only what would be the malicious forces of the near-future but the tactics and mindset that would be needed to resist them. Hackers is a fun and thrilling film that holds up far better than it has any right to, particularly in its politics. On it's 25th anniversary, it really is a movie worth revisiting and thinking on.
Hack the planet.
Today's Panic Reading
Usually I try to fill this part of the newsletter with the informative but anxiety-inducing articles I'm reading, but since we're talking about Hackers, I have to include one fun bit. In 2018, Motherboard talked to actual hackers and cybersecurity experts about the film and why it is so beloved.
But back to the anxiety! According to the United Nations, the world has failed to meet every single climate goal it set 10 years ago. We're all going to die.
Also, I am typing this from Los Angeles, where the air is still smoky and fires are still raging. It's a scary time and I am currently lucky enough not to be in immediate danger or need to evacuate. But many are not. And all of this is being exacerbated due to climate change, which as the previous story mentioned we are failing to stop. Jack Mirkinson has a good piece trying to come to grips with how this is our reality now.
Today's Panic Music
Since I'm writing about Hackers, I've got to include something off of the soundtrack. The Hackers soundtrack was basically a compilation of some of the best electronic music of the 1990s. I mean they literally put out three volumes of the soundtrack. I wanted to recommend Orbital's “Halcyon + On + On,” which accompanies the opening scene of the movie and sets the scene so well. But since Underworld is my favorite band, I am thinking of “Cowgirl,” which accompanies the Crash and Burn flirting at Cyberdelia. Or, well, you know what, just go listen to the whole soundtrack.