Monday, March 28, 2011


I wasn't expecting a lot from this old movie, mostly notable for having a bunch of actors you know in it, but before you knew them. I can't decide if I'm surprised pleasantly or unpleasantly.

The thing is, somewhere in this mess, there's a story that is hackneyed and overdone, but actually sort of okay. They did a pretty good job with setting things up for later payoff, and while the conflict is formulaic (and particularly evocative of movies from ten years earlier -- I kept thinking of parallels with bits of the story of Real Genius) it's still serviceable.

But the movie is just trying way too hard, all the time, about everything. The characters might as well be standing around holding up megaphones shouting "I am cool!" at the camera all the time -- and it wouldn't change one bit how cool they are if they did. Pro tip: did you know all hackers are expert roller-skaters?

The movie is doing the same thing, too; worse, it actually has a megaphone and spends a lot of time shouting "I am cool!" at you when it could be doing things like having a story or characters. There's these lengthy visual sequences that are apparently supposed to convey, in an exciting and visual way, what hacking is like -- which is always a problem, since hacking is neither exciting nor visual to watch. So naturally we have to see three-dimensional images representing systems and files which we swoop around, and worse yet, these images on the computer screens of the hackers keep shining out onto their faces so crisply you can make them out in reverse. Often, this also takes the form of a music video, in that there's some kind of throbbing and wholly inappropriate music, and lots of visually corny superposition imagery of the characters spinning through other things for no clear reason.

You have to sympathize. Plenty of other movies have tried and failed at the same challenge. Hacking is just not visually interesting, so the only way to make it visually interesting is to make it something completely other. The only movie that occurs to me off the top of my head to be exciting and compelling, but also realistic, about this subject is Sneakers, and it manages it by keeping the actual hacking as a MacGuffin while focusing the action on the flesh-and-blood world around it. (Though even they fell for the temptation of one visual depiction of program code that was a bit goofy.)

It's not that Hackers is being technically unrealistic. (Okay, they are, wildly so, egregiously so, but that's okay.) It's that they're going to so much heavy-handed effort to tickle those of us who know a thing or two with wink-wink-nudge-nudge demonstrations that they got some real tech consultants. There's a scene which serves no purpose whatsoever during which they recite, with laborious excess, the various "color" books that were once the standard reference library of computer types everywhere, and get them right, as far as I can remember, for no other reason than to say "see, we did our research." There's dozens of things like that, but none of them actually end up informing anything about the actual plot. They're just call-outs by which the movie screams at us, "we, who made this, are one of you! and we're just as cool as you!" Then it promptly gets back to a plot that bears little or no resemblance to anything computers actually are used to do.

One last complaint: the only problem with the villain is that his tiny little mustache is way too small to twirl. But he makes up for it with aplomb. I hope the actor used his paycheck to buy something nice. He certainly won't be able to look back on this movie as a positive experience in any other way I can think of. I suppose there was originally a scene where he strangles a puppy with his bare hands, cackling maniacally, and they had to cut it in order to get that "no animals were harmed" statement, so they told him, "you're just going to have to find ways to be more absurdly over-the-top evil through, you know, that acting stuff you actor-types are always on about."

I think if you took out all the set pieces designed solely to establish how cool the movie is, and then added a few more twists to the plot to make up the lost time, you could have made a pretty good movie out of this. But as it is, the best thing to do about this movie is go watch Real Genius or Sneakers instead. Most of what's good here is better there.

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