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Entries in Hackers [1995] (1)

Wednesday
Jul272011

Hackers (1995) Home Video Review

Flashback(slash)

In its description of Hackers, Netflix uses the phrase, "dated, campy thriller." I'll let "campy" slide: The word implies intentional cheese and melodrama, and it's hard for me to tell if the filmmakers are making fun of their audience or just desperately, ineffectively trying to relate to them.

But, dated?

Surely not! Why, Hackers is a very timely movie--though its relevance may not extend past this week.

I found three weird coincidences that range from brain-tickling to mind-blowing, and I'd like to share them with you:

1. The film takes place in 1995 and centers on a group of teenage computer geniuses who mistakenly hack the system of a mega-corporation; they uncover a plot by its security and technology officers to embezzle $25 million using a worm that takes a small bite of every transaction the company makes (think Office Space, or Superman III). Hackers' characters pontificate (a lot) on the dissolution of nation-states and group identities in general, promoting the idea of the hacker as a one-man army with no allegiance to anyone but him- or herself; it's an eerie precursor not only to modern attitudes about warfare, but also the advent of "social" media.

2. Marc Anthony--who just this week separated from J.Lo--randomly pops up as an eager FBI agent.

3. In an English class scene, several students write their favorite quotes from literature on the blackboard. One is by Allen Ginsburg.

Okay, only the first point may mean anything to people other than me. But, honestly, there's not a whole lot to talk about regarding Hackers. It's a hybrid of WarGames and Empire Records that's more noticeable for its soon-to-breakout cast than anything going on in the screenplay.

Jonny Lee Miller plays Dade Murphy, a (ahem) high school student who moves to New York with his mother during senior year. He's just come off a seven-year, court-mandated restriction from using any kind of computer or touch-tone phone (at age eleven, he hacked thousands of computers in a single day and was busted by a SWAT team). Like any addict, Dade immediately starts cooking, virtually invading a local television station and messing with its scheduling system. He gets booted out by a rival hacker with the handle "Acid Burn", and laments no longer being top dog.

Dade is an outcast at his new school, whose students look like they raided the closets of David Lee Roth and Eddie Vedder. He tries to get in with the cool crowd, run by the alluring Kate (Angelina Jolie), and finds himself wading through a nest of quirky, good-natured cyber-pirates. It doesn't take long for one of the kids to stumble across the embezzlement scheme; the weaselly technology officer, Eugene "The Plague" Belford (Fisher Stevens) has him arrested and then tailed on release. Before long, the whole gang is implicated and Belford devises a plan to frame them for stealing the money while protecting his worm from discovery (this all ties into an extraneous sub-plot about capsizing oil tankers, but even mentioning it is going one step too far).

The cast is serviceable, with Jolie being the main stand-out. It's easy to see how she built an amazing career on those swollen, alley-fight lips and darling Pixie haircut; but she affects a pseudo-British accent that drove me nuts. It weaves in and out of her speech like a Madonna press conference with sound-equipment issues, and it's hard to follow what she's saying because the way she says everything is so distracting. This is the exact inverse problem with Miller, who actually is British. Why Dade couldn't have just been an transfer student from London, I'll never know. His American accent is so bizarre that it forms a blockade between dialogue and performance. It's an egregious waste of a great, young talent who would go on to dazzle as Sick Boy in Trainspotting the following year.

Matthew Lillard pops up as one of the hacker kids, doing his annoying Jim-Carrey-on-meth-and-Fruit-Loops thing. A practically pre-teen Jesse Bradford plays the boy who lands everyone in trouble--his main character trait is being nervous and smoking two cigarettes at the same time (one in each hand). Lorraine Bracco plays Belford's co-conspirator as a nervous, catty dimwit; I'm guessing she left Hackers off her demo reel when auditioning for The Sopranos. Speaking of Belford, Fisher Stevens is, I think, one of the top three reasons this movie earned a reputation for being cheesy. He's a skateboard-riding, Jolt-chugging nerd with a Zod complex (that's not a typo), whose unintentionally hilarious, off-key attempts at being intimidating belong in movies like Blank Check or Home Alone 3.

My biggest gripe with Hackers isn't the so-so-so-dated computer graphics or the quaint, mid-90s "rebel" costuming, artistry, and stabs at shattering cultural taboos. No, it's just over-long and not nearly as exciting as it should be. We get too many speeches and too many diversions from the main story (such as an extended sequence where the kids "prank" the lead federal investigator by messing with and eventually erasing his virtual identity--not so much funny as really terrifying in the ease and joy with which they go about their work). A movie like this needs either great stakes, a great villain, or great writing--none of which can be found in Rafael Moreu's screenplay.

The failsafe, of course, is interesting direction, but Iain Softley also comes up short, with the exception of a neat take on the done-to-death birds-eye-view-of-Manhattan shot--in which the buildings morph into towers on a circuit board. Softley tries to spice up the dull story by including swirling representations of data streams and taking the audience inside the world of the computer; but the result is a puzzling hybrid of Tron and The Matrix: I was more interested in the lightning storms rocking the hard drive than the boring plight of Dade and his Scooby Gang.

Hackers is an cute snapshot of a very specific point in the development of both film and technology. We can laugh now at the teens' snobbery (Wow! They can carry entire computers around in their backpacks!) and seemingly incompatible earnestness--despite a bitchy, parents-just-don't-understand attitude, at least they aren't gunning each other down between classes. Because home computing and the Internet as we know them today were still in their infancy (okay, maybe they were toddlers by '95), the movie may have had a certain "Oooh" factor on release. Looking back, however, the breakthroughs that everyone touted at the time are as giggle-worthy as seeing corded telephones in 1970s films. That's why a solid story and a great, well-used cast are so important in creating durable entertainment. Fads come and go, but not even time can delete a true classic.