What Swordfish teaches us about hacking computers

We take a close look at 2001's Swordfish, and pinpoint the crucial lessons that wannabe computer programmers can take from it.

What follows gets quite geeky at times. We should point out that this is very much a tongue in cheek look at the film, rather than a desire to see filmmakers correct programming errors!

In fairness to him, John Travolta warns you at the start of Swordfish, in a gift to movie critics and writers of tired retrospective articles, that Hollywood “makes shit”. He is not incorrect.

The first few minutes of Swordfish, once Travolta has hit us with this revelation, proceed to dissect the all-time classic Dog Day Afternoon, whilst Travolta chomps on a cigar and looks pleased with the arrangement of his facial hair. There’s not much of it, but it’s still a point of pride to the man.

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As for the film itself? Well Swordfish, even amongst those who tended not to mind it at the time, rarely hits many people’s rewatch list. The truth behind this is it’s not actually that interesting. It’s neither terrible enough to be a rewatch joy, and it’s also got Vinnie Jones in it, so the odds of it being a corker are instantly diluted too. Sorry, Vinnie.

Last year though, we took a look at just what computer programming and hacking lessons we could learn from the mighty Superman III. You can read that article here. By the popular demand of one person in the comments of said article, this time we progress to Swordfish.

Swordfish, you may recall, stars Hugh Jackman as one of the world’s best computer hackers. Like all computer hackers, he’s a man, and he’s a man positively dripping with testosterone. Oh, and he’s been banned from hacking computers come to that. That ban is broken with no consequence at all.

But just how good a hacker is he, behind his fumes of manliness? That’s just what we’re going to find out.

To start with, we know that Jackman’s character is a great hacker, because he’s so reclusive that it takes Halle Berry to track him down. She finds him playing golf, with an aversion to shirts (Taylor Lautner saw the film quite young and duly took notes, scrubbing the golf part out), and we get the crucial background information. He has a broken marriage. He has a daughter. He has the look of a man who would only find an F4 key for you if you found some way to orally pleasure him.

Ah, but that’s instantly off the agenda. “I’m not here to suck your dick”, Berry pretty much straight away explains.

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Good for her. Her commitment to a strong female role lasts as long as the bit where she pocketed an extra half a million dollars to expose her storm porches, but let’s not dwell on that. And, going back to Jackman’s own requirements, as anyone who has sat through Swordfish before well knows, Jackman’s trouser Wolverine would be getting attention soon enough.

This is not the last bad penis joke in this article, I should warn you.

Further sort-of-necessary preamble: it’s established that Travolta’s character is a badass, with connections, who people travel to see. And like the host on The Crystal Maze, Travolta sets Jackman a little task. Firstly, he sets the scene…

As you can see, the above screenshot lays out three notable challenges. Firstly, this is a Department Of Defense network that needs to be hacked into. Access to it is restricted, as if the Department Of Defense would need to illustrate such a thing on its login screen. And there is DES 128 bit encrypted security, almost taunting hackers to try and break in.

DES stands for Data Encryption Standard in case you were wondering, a standard dating back to the late 1970s. In 1997, the NIST announced that it was looking for a replacement for the DES standard. In 2001, Swordfish came out.

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Nonetheless, the decision is made to up the difficulty level for Hugh Hackman. Hence, an amenable young lady by the name of Helga is brought in to kiss Wolverine on the mouth with tongues and stuff, while Travolta and Vinnie Jones watch, akin to doggers in posh suits. Halle Berry, meanwhile, looks. She knows what’s coming.

“DOD D-base 128-bit encryption”, says Travolta, with the blithe look of a man who has no idea at all what he’s talking about. Jackman mumbles about nothing being impossible. Travolta grins, and springs his trap. Cue further dialogue, with the perpetrators talking about worms and Trojan Horses as if they were hair gel and bizarre beards, Jackman is challenged. That’s after necking a drink and ‘getting acquainted’ with Helga.

Going back to Superman III a minute, when Richard Pryor was required to hack a weather satellite in that film, he was at least allowed to fully concentrate on the job in hand. At no point, to my recollection, was he being fellated at any time. I have the Blu-ray of said film, and like to think I would have spotted it.

Jackman, however, has 60 seconds. 60 seconds to perform a near-impossible hack. All the while whilst Helga pays his X-man some special attention. The best crackers in the world, we’re told, can do this in 60 minutes, presuming their penis is left alone. Jackman, not content with having one-sixtieth of the time ideally required to tackle this apparently devilishly difficult job, doesn’t even get started for a good 14 seconds.

So, we’re down to 46 seconds.

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I should point out that just before he starts, two ladies look at Jackman, one of whom has a cherry in her mouth. Here’s the magical moment…

Director Dominic Sena appears to be putting across something subliminal here, but so deep are the subtexts, I struggled to get across quite what he was getting at. Maybe the lady on the left has bought a cocktail cherry, because she heard rumours that the batch they have behind the bar has gone off? That would make sense. In fact, it’s hard to think of anything more logical.

Anyway, this is the screen that Jackman is facing…

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Now, every now and then, we get accused of not making this website geeky enough. If you’re one of those people who has accused us of this crime, the next bit is just for you.

This looks like the C programming language that Jackman is working with, but obviously the assignments are wrong. As we all know, ‘char buffer[200] is an array of 200 bytes. Yet – the cads! – they are assigning it an IP address! An IP address! It’s not being assigned a byte. It could, of course, be an array of bytes were it enclosed in double quotes. But then, as you’re no doubt already chuckling to yourself about, it’d still generate a syntax error, as there is no semi-colon or equals sign.

IP addresses too, of course, can’t have numbers bigger than 255 in them. Consider that added to the rap sheet. 

So what chance does Jackman have of completing his task with shonky coding like that? He gets his first ‘access denied’ error message 13 seconds after he bothers to get started. It’s one of those low key screens, designed not to alert the hacker that they’ve on the wrong track, no doubt signalling a silent alarm on the network in question. Oh, hang on, no it isn’t…

Other activities are occurring concurrently still. And interestingly, at this point, the positioning of Helga’s head suggests she’s more licking his leg than kissing his admantium.

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That is the last penis joke in this article.

More access denied messages follow, interspersed by images of Jackman smacking mostly the middle row of his keyboard. It’s as if he’s playing Track & Field, but has forgotten the buttons he needs to make his athlete run. Thus, he hits all of them.

Furthermore, at one stage he claps his hands. This does not achieve anything.

Jackman does complete the hack however, but not until 68 seconds after he begins. That, in turn, is 82 seconds after the deadline set by Travolta, and a further 35 seconds after Helga has begun extracting code of her own. Fortunately, Travolta was not serious about killing him. At least not at the end of act one of the movie.

It would be fair to say that this early exchange has thrown doubt on just what computer programming and hacking lessons Swordfish has for us. Undeterred, I pushed on. Because as it turns out, this was just the dry run, for the big task that Travolta really needs Jackman’s expertise for.

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Brilliantly, Travolta and Berry lay down the ultimate task, explaining that they need “a hydra”, adding that this is “a multi-headed worm to sniff out digital footprints across an encrypted network”. It will use “Vernam encryption”, and “512-bit encryption”.

This time, Jackman is adamant. “That’s definitely not possible”, he firmly tells Travolta. “What if I were to tell you I’d give you $10m?”, Travolta retorts. “A Scooby snack?!”, says Jackman, swiftly agreeing to said impossible job.

So then. Berry introduces Jackman to his posh multi-screen system. She explains to him that it has a DS3 connection, allowing access to seven different networks simultaneously. Oh, and that to use it, he has to crack the central encryption.

She then strokes the top of his leg, and queries “are you surprised that a girl with an IQ over 70 can give you a hard-on?” By the look on Jackman’s face, he is not.

To tackle this particular hacking problem, Jackman elects to use a worm that he wrote many, many years ago, that’s hidden on tape drives on a network far away. To his credit, Dominic Sena tries to dramatise this, by coming up with a sort-of action sequence where data travels along a network cable, accompanied by loud music. It reminded me of that bit in Ron Howard’s Angels & Demons, where he made an action sequence out of smoke coming up a chimney.

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As this is a film, Jackman’s worm generation tool, that he wrote a long time back remember, does its work by drawing pretty pictures. But there is some code involved. Such as this…

You don’t need us to tell you that this is PERL script this time, which takes a file as argument, executes it, and saves the output. So it’s saving to a file a list of users connected to, or shares exported by, the server. Obviously, the exact purpose depends on which UNIX platform is being deployed. But the crucial factor here is that it appears to have absolutely nothing to do with the task that Jackman has been set.

If you ask me, they’ve overlooked the potential educational aspect of this film altogether.

As we get to the end of the film, they’ve pretty much given up trying, with at one stage Jackman left to do some hacking, while Halle Berry literally hangs around in the background. Here she is…

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By that stage, even the less geekier members of the film’s audience may have twigged that all is a little on the side of bullshit. Even Vinnie, look…

In the film’s defence, it does open with a rather spiffy explosion, and whenever Vinnie Jones isn’t on screen, and in particular whenever he’s not required to speak (director Dominic Sena previously cast Jones in Gone In Sixty Seconds, cunningly making him mute for 99% of the film’s running time), it’s a serviceable piece of entertainment. But – tsk – what kind of lessons does it teach the computer programmers and hackers of the future? Bad ones, I’d suggest.

Next time in my search for technical authenticity in the movies, I’m going to dig out my old copy of The Net. I’m sure that’s a lot closer to real life. In the meantime, hang your head in shame, Swordfish. You’ve not just let us down, but you’ve let yourself and Travolta’s perfectly pruned face foliage down too.

Very special thanks to Wojciech Bojdol and Marcelo Vani for their help with this piece.

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