Hackers (1995), Lookback/Review

Groundbreaking, in so many ways . . .

Ian Softley’s 1995 hit Hackers is one of those rarities in filmmaking that comes along only a couple times a decade (if you’re lucky) in that I firmly believe Hackers is as close to perfect as any movie can get. A classic 90s film to its very core, Hackers follows the lives of a group of teenage computer hackers living in New York City in 1995. Hackers opens in 1988 with Dade “Zero Cool” Murphy (Johnny Lee Miller) in court after his high-skilled arrest and being charged with crashing 1,507 computer systems in one day and causing a single-day seven-point drop in the New York Stock Exchange. “Only seven points,” you’re thinking? Well, keep in mind this is the late 80s, two decades before the infamous crashing of the financial market that all of us undoubtedly lived through a mere four years ago. Oh and if you’re still mocking those seven silly points, it would also be wise to remember that the Zero Cool in question is just 11 years old. That’s right, a boy who had yet to reach puberty was responsible for this. Just what were YOU doing at 11?  

Dade is charged with a $45,000 fine and banned from using computers or touchtone telephones until his 18th birthday. The next time we see Zero Cool he has moved to New York City with his mother and is just shy of turning 18. When he does turn 18, Zero Cool decides to wet his feet again in the hacking pool by breaking into a television station’s computer station and changing the current program to an episode of Outer Limits. During this process, Dade encounters another hacker, Acid Burn, who tries to take him down. When Acid Burn asks this mystery hacker to identify himself, Dade chooses the moniker Crash Override so as not to give himself away.

The next day, Dade finds himself enrolling at Stanton High School where he meets Kate Libby (Angelina Jolie), who is assigned to give him a tour of his new school. After some quick banter and a perfect high school prank, Kate disappears. During this first day at school, Dade quickly realizes who his fellow hackers are (easily identified by their penchant for leather and rollerblading) and falls in with them. At a party, Dade sees Kate and learns that she is really Acid Burn, the antagonistic hacker from the other day. Attraction is clear, but so is competition and both hackers feel as if they are better than the other and need to prove it.

The viewer’s attention briefly shifts when the youngest in the group, Joey (Jesse Bradford), hacks into a supercomputer, The Gibson, at Ellington Mineral Company to prove his hacking chops. Sounds like this movie is all about status and street cred right? Well, things take a turn for the worse when Joey decides to download part of The Gibson’s garbage file, a selection that, it just so happens, can prove that Ellington Mineral Company’s computer security officer, Eugene “The Plague” Belford (Fisher Stevens) is stealing from the company through a technique known as “salami slicing.” Don’t be fooled, this technique has nothing to do with everyone’s favorite cured lunchmeat. Rather, it refers to the process of stealing a few cents from each transaction until a certain amount is reached. What’s a few cents right? That’s the point: no one is going to notice a couple of cents. The Plague is well on his way to stealing a whopping $25 million from the company. In order to stop the hackers from outing him, The Plague claims that Joey stole a code to the Da Vinci, a computer virus powerful enough that it could capsize Ellington’s oil tanker fleet if not destroyed. Now with the Secret Service on board, they set out to find this invaluable (floppy) disc, believing it is needed to stop Da Vinci in its tracks. 

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Joey is arrested (a big kind of arrest only reserved for hackers it seems – witness the recent, elaborate prosecution and subsequent suicide of Aaron Swartz) but he hides the disc, so they find nothing. At the same time, Acid Burn and Zero Cool (Kate and Dade) decide to set out on a series of challenges that revolve around harassing U.S. Secret Service Agent, Dick Gill (the same person responsible for Joey’s arrest) in order to finally prove just who is the better hacker. The stakes of the challenge escalate along with the hacks themselves, with Kate vowing to go on a date with Dade while wearing a dress if she loses and Dade vowing to be Kate’s slave, also while wearing a dress, if he loses (what can we say? It was the Eighties).

No winner is decided before Joey is released on bail and calls Phreak, revealing just where the incriminating disc is. Before Phreak can get the disc, however, he’s arrested by the Secret Service. Realizing they are being taken down one-by-one, Phreak calls Kate and tells her in code, “it’s in that place I put that thing that time.” Which apparently refers to the boy’s restroom at school. After retrieving the disc, Kate and Cereal Killer ask Dade for his help; aware that his criminal record makes him an easy target. Dade declines (so not hacker cool) but not before promising to simply copy the disc as evidence. 

When The Plague independently contacts Dade (at first attempting to bribe him with a computer, and then blackmailing him by threatening to have his mother falsely arrested) Dade agrees to hand over Kate’s copy of the disk. At this point, Dade reveals to his friends what he just did and his past as Zero Cool, who at one time was the world’s youngest and most powerful hacker. It is Dade, after all, who finally discovers just what is hiding on the disc; information that will incriminate The Plague.

They band together and decide to take matters into their own hands after realizing that they are all set to take the fall when the red herring of the Da Vinci is actually set in action the next day. Knowing they will never be able to take down Da Vinci, The Gibson and The Plague alone, they decide to enlist more hackers: “Hackers of the world unite!”

The next morning they all work together to stop the Da Vinci code (yes, we are purposefully ignoring any more current references to the abysmal book and movie of the same name) before it capsizes the oil tankers, leaving them saddled with the blame. With the help of every single hacker in the world (or so it seems), they are able to take down The Gibson and Da Vinci and correctly incriminate The Plague, who is arrested while boarding a plane to Japan. These teenage hackers are really able to do it all; a lesson for Geeks everywhere. 

The movie ends with a final date scene between Kate and Dade, with Kate wearing a dress. While swimming in a rooftop pool, they look across the street at the building facing them and see that the lights in the windows of the offices spell out “Crash and Burn,” just one final hack from their high school buds. A fine ending indeed!

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Well, there you have it: one of the best movies in the world, I’m convinced and one of my personal, all time favorites. Plot aside (which is, at once extremely complex and yet so straightforward in the way only Nineties movies can be), the movie has other great characteristics that set it apart. Hackers is truly the perfect time capsule for Nineties subculture. Not only does the movie focus on teenage hackers, a theme which remains relevant today, but it also embraces other fun, although now dated, subcultures like the world of underground rollerblading, video gaming and, let’s not forget perhaps the most important alternative trend of the Nineties, wearing leather EVERYTHING. Watching Hackers is like watching one of the decade’s most informative texts. The movie is revealing in a very important way.

Second, the sexual tension between the two leads is more palpable than in most movies made today. This is an undeniable fact of the movie. So much so that the two married in real life. Yes, Angelina Jolie had a rather long and dramatic romantic history even BEFORE the whole Brad Pitt thing. Crash and Burn forever, even though their real-life marriage didn’t exactly last forever (more like three years).

Third, the graphics, imagery and cinematography in Hackers was impressively ahead of its time and even bordered on avant-garde. I swear I’m not being ironic here. I truly believe that Hackers goes above and beyond in the imagery category. I mean, at certain points the viewer is taken on a journey inside the computer, basically unheard of at the time. Graphics carefully walk the line between what’s real and what’s not, adding immensely to the movie.   

Fourth, Hackers has well drawn characters played by talented actors. Angelina Jolie and Johnny Lee Miller are strong leads putting in impressive performances. Jolie especially, whose character’s androgynous haircut, superb hacking skills and penchant for gender-neutral leather clothes was almost groundbreaking. We finally had a strong female character who, while slightly androgynous, didn’t completely abandon her femininity. Even more charismatic than Jolie and Miller though, is Matthew Lillard, who plays Cereal Killer, one of their hacker-friends. Even in a supporting role, Lillard is able to steal a major part of the show. With Scream coming out just a year later in 1996 and Lillard stealing scenes in that Nineties classic too, I firmly believe it was Hackers that put Lillard on the map. If only he were still on that map . . . 

While Hackers may not be considered a classic by today’s slightly-uppity standards, I stand by this movie as one that has not only influenced countless technologically-forward movies that came after, but also one that will continue doing so for future generations.

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 Den of Geek Rating: 5 Out of 5 Stars