When he was 11-years-old, Dade Murphy a.k.a. Zero Cool, crashed 1,507 computer systems in one day. He was busted and forbidden to go near a computer or use a touch-tone telephone until he turned 18. Seven years later, Dade (Jonny Lee Miller) and his mother (Alberta Watson) move to New York City where he spends his spare time doing harmless hacks, like breaking into a small, local television station and replacing a talk show featuring a Rush Limbaugh wannabe with a vintage episode of The Outer Limits. That is, until he runs into another hacker by the name of Acid Burn who bounces him out of the system in a colorful cheesy sequence that mixes an early form of Instant Messaging with clips from vintage films in an attempt to depict their battle in a visually interesting way because, let’s face it, there is nothing sexy about watching two people type away on their computers.
Dade shows up to his first day at high school and is immediately smitten with a beautiful girl named Kate Libby a.k.a. Acid Burn (Angelina Jolie) who proceeds to pull a prank that leaves him stranded on the roof with several other gullible new students. Of course, this establishes an antagonistic love-hate relationship between the two like some kind of unholy union between Howard Hawks and Steve Jobs. While hacking into the school computer system (to infiltrate Kate’s English class no less), Dade catches the attention of the Phantom Phreak a.k.a. Ramon Sanchez (Renoly Santiago) who invites him to an arcade that he and his fellow hackers frequent. It’s there that he meets Cereal Killer a.k.a. Emmanuel Goldstein (Matthew Lillard), Joey Pardella (Jesse Bradford), a hyperactive doofus always trying to impress his friends by trying to pull righteous hacks, and, a little later on, Lord Nikon a.k.a. Paul Cook (Laurence Mason), a hacker with a photographic memory. He also crosses paths yet again with Kate and proceeds to beat her high score on a video game that nobody has ever bested her at. Afterwards, Phreak informs Dade, “Congratulations. You just made an enemy for life.” The arcade is a dream hangout for teens with T.V.s everywhere, kids rollerblading all over the place, lots of video games, and loud dance music – what more could you want at that age?
Dade and Kate continue to flirt-er, prank each other but this is put on the backburner when Joey is busted by the Feds for hacking into and retrieving a highly sensitive garbage file from a supercomputer (known as a Gibson, an obvious nod Cyberpunk author William Gibson). It turns out that the garbage file is more valuable then he realizes as it contains vital information about a corporate hacker named The Plague a.k.a. Eugene Belford (Fisher Stevens) who works for mega-corporation Ellingson Mineral Company. Unbeknownst to its clueless executives, The Plague is actually ripping them off and covering his tracks by unleashing a computer virus that will cause one of their oil tankers to capsize and spill its contents into the ocean at a predetermined time. He is also in cahoots with Margo (Lorraine Bracco), a technically illiterate corporate executive who is getting cozy with him between the sheets.
When Joey and then Phreak are busted for possessing a copy of the garbage file, Dade, Kate, Cereal Killer, and Lord Nikon team up to clear their friends’ names and expose The Plague’s nefarious scheme. Naturally, he blames the virus on our hacker heroes and this brings in the Secret Service, led by Agent Gill (Wendell Pierce), a self-important jerk who thinks that he’s smarter than these kids. So, they decide to teach him a lesson in an amusing montage where Dade and Kate compete to see who can make Gill look more foolish and this involves listing his work phone in a kinky personal ad, canceling his credit card and, in a nice touch, declaring him deceased.
With those pouty, sexy lips, attractive figure (accentuated by a series of form-fitting outfits no less) and short, pixie haircut, Angelina Jolie resembles a rather gorgeous Romulan in this film. Even this early on in her career, she exuded a natural charisma, an impressive confidence and exotic looks that are fascinating to watch. Her character is probably the one that comes closest to the actual Cyberpunk genre with her futuristic club kid attire and punk rock attitude with just a hint of vulnerability. Already you can see the makings of a big-time movie star. For all of their cyber-sparring, Kate and Dade have a strong chemistry together as did Jolie and Jonny Lee Miller. They became an actual couple while making this film and it certainly translates on-screen as you can’t fake the kind of attraction they have towards each other. You can see it in the way they look at each other. Miller acquits himself just fine as a confident elite hacker. He wisely delivers an understated performance instead of trying to compete with the colorful supporting cast. His best scenes are, not surprisingly, with Jolie. He would be able to cut loose and steal scenes in his next film, the now iconic Trainspotting (1996), which really allowed him to show his acting chops in a way that Hackers never could.
Cereal Killer is one of the many spazzy characters that populate Matthew Lillard’s resume. Early on, his character infiltrates Dade and Kate’s Advanced English class just so he can participate in an exercise where students quote a passage from a significant author of the 20th century. While Dade quotes Allen Ginsberg (nice touch), Cereal, befitting his gonzo behavior, cites Ozzy Osbourne: “Of all the things I’ve lost I miss my mind the most.” Watching Jolie’s reaction to Lillard’s mock confusion at being called out for being in the wrong class is priceless and every time I see it I wonder if she’s breaking character and they decided to keep it in. Lillard would go to make a career out of playing motor-mouthed characters in films like Scream (1996) and SLC Punk (1998).
I have a feeling that recent Academy Award winner Fisher Stevens would probably like to forget this film but he certainly commits to the role, playing the cartoonish villain The Plague complete with cheesy dialogue and condescending attitude that just begs for him to be foiled by Dade and his buddies. Stevens looks like he’s having a lot of fun with the role and punctuates his scenes with little gestures or gives his dialogue a bit of a spin that lets you know he is fully aware of the kind of film this is and his role in it: the moustache-twirling bad guy. Most impressively, Stevens manages to spout such gems as, “God wouldn’t be up this late,” with a straight face. Now, that’s acting. Lorraine Bracco, a long way from the heights of GoodFellas (1990), has the thankless task of playing the techno-phobe foil to Stevens’ oily villain. She vamps along gamely but her considerable talents are pretty much wasted in this film.
It’s hard to believe that the same guy who directed Backbeat (1994), a gritty biopic about the early days of The Beatles before they made it big, also made Hackers. You couldn’t get more different in look or tone but, thematically, they are similar in the sense that they’re both about young people trying to express themselves and who live outside the mainstream. Director Iain Softley does everything he can to make Hackers look as visually dynamic as possible. The hacking/cyberspace sequences are certainly done in the spirit of films like Tron (1982) or television shows like Max Headroom with neon green text scrolling along tall columns and when a data file is discovered all kinds of multi-colored words come flying out at you. In other words, Softley eschews realism in favor of vibrant, colorful imagery in a playful way befitting the film’s young protagonists, like this would be the kind of film that they would watch over many cans of Jolt Cola. To this end, Softley also populates Hackers with all kinds of pulsating electronica, including the likes of Orbital, Prodigy, Massive Attack, and Underworld – a who’s who of the genre in the ‘90s. The musical highlight of Hackers for me is the use of the hypnotically groovy track, “Connected” by the Stereo MCs that plays during the party scene at Kate’s as Cereal and Dade work the room. It has an insanely catchy groove that instantly takes me back to that time quite unlike any other song in that genre.
Screenwriter Rafael Moreu had been interested in computer hacking since the early 1980s. After the crackdown in the United States during 1989-90, he decided to write a screenplay about this subculture. For research, Moreu went to a meeting organized by the New York-based hacker magazine 2600. There, he met Phiber Optik a.k.a. Mark Abene, a 22-year-old hacker who would go on to spend most of 1994 in prison on hacking charges. Moreu also hung out with other young hackers who were being hassled by the government and began to figure out how all this material would translate into a film. He remembered, “one guy was talking about how he’d done some really interesting stuff with a laptop and payphones and that cracked it for me, because it made it cinematic.”
One of the film’s producers Janet Graham realized that Moreu’s script was tapping into the zeitgeist of the moment: "We recognized that hacking has become a cultural phenomenon. Here are these very bright kids, who are multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and from every strata. They are neither nerds nor terrorists, but they have become proficient in something with ramifications most of us have only begun to comprehend.” Director Softley was also drawn to the cultural significance of hackers: "It wasn't as much the computers as the idea that here was a phenomenon that today's generation has latched onto in the way that their predecessors latched onto rock 'n' roll. I think their agenda is simply to have fun, to do what they want to do and not allow anybody to tell them what not to do."
Softley and casting director Dianne Crittenden saw over 1,000 actors from England and the United States and, as a result, landed then-newcomers Jonny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie. To prepare for the film, the cast spent three weeks learning how to type, rollerblade and getting to know each other. This clearly paid off as they interact with each other in the film much like actual friends would as evident in the scene in the arcade or when they go to Kate’s party. In addition, the cast also read a lot about computers and met with actual hackers while actor Jonny Lee Miller even attended a convention.
The arcade in the film where the protagonists hang out came out of research that the filmmakers did. Their aim was to make it part nightclub, part clubhouse – a place where hackers came to share information, scope out the latest gear and challenge each other on cutting edge video games. The arcade was built from scratch in an abandoned indoor swimming pool on the edges of London. The video game that Dade and Kate play was called WipeOut and was created by Sony Playstation.
Amazingly, director Iain Softley did not use any computer graphics for the cyberspace sequences. He wanted to go for “more conventional methods of motion control, animation, models, and rotoscoping to create a real, three-dimensional world, because… computer graphics alone can sometimes lend a more flat, sterile image.” According to Miller, Softley wanted “to go for a cyberimagery that speaks for the late twentieth century, where it is reflected in fashion, in music, in everything. The thriller bit is really a peg to hang it all on.” In regards to the film’s visuals, Softley said, “You can’t film the transfer of data. I wanted it to be a psychedelic thing, with references to 2001. I was very cavalier about representing computers, I wanted it to be a metaphor and not take itself too seriously. I see it almost as a cyber fairytale.”
For such an easy target for critics, Hackers actually garnered a decent amount of positive reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, "The movie is smart and entertaining, then, as long as you don't take the computer stuff very seriously. I didn't. I took it approximately as seriously as the archeology in Indiana Jones.” The San Francisco Chronicle’s Peter Stack wrote, "Want a believable plot or acting? Forget it. But if you just want knockout images, unabashed eye candy and a riveting look at a complex world that seems both real and fake at the same time, Hackers is one of the most intriguing movies of the year.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “despite her sullen posturing, which is all this role requires, Ms. Jolie has the sweetly cherubic looks of her father, Jon Voight.” USA Today gave Hackers three out of four stars and Mike Clark wrote, "When a movie's premise repels all rational analysis, speed is the make-or-break component. To its credit, Hackers recalls the pumped-up energy of Pump Up the Volume, as well as its casting prowess.” The Toronto Star’s Peter Goddard wrote, "Hackers joy-rides down the same back streets Marlon Brando did in The Wild One, or Bruce Springsteen does in Born to Run. It gives all the classic kicks of the classic B-flicks, with more action than brains, cool hair and hot clothes, and all the latest tech revved to the max.”
However, the Los Angeles Times’ David Kronke obviously didn’t click with the film’s youthful exuberance when he wrote, "All this is courtesy of the short-circuited imagination of Rafael Moreu, making his feature screenwriting debut, and director Iain Softley, who hopes that if he piles on the attitude and stylized visuals, no one will notice just how empty and uninvolving the story really is. All the sound and fury in the world can't disguise the fact that yowling music, typing montages and computer animation do not a gripping finale make.” In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson wrote, "As its stars, Miller and Jolie seem just as one-dimensional—except that, in their case, the effect is intentional.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “D” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “What's most grating about Hackers, however, is the way the movie buys in to the computer-kid-as-elite-rebel mystique currently being peddled by magazines like Wired.”
When it was released the film’s screenwriter saw it as more than just about computer hacking but something much larger: “In fact, to call hackers a counterculture makes it sound like they’re a transitory thing. I think they’re the next step in evolution.” Yeah, riiiight. Half-jokingly, he saw Hackers as a film about relationships, a “cyberpunk romantic comedy.” (?!) Oddly enough, Moreu only went on to only pen one other screenplay that was made into a film, a lackluster sequel to Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) no less which pretty much sunk his career and he hasn’t been heard from since.
So, what do we learn about hacking from this film? Not much, aside from don’t do a hack from your personal computer on a target located across state lines because you’ll get busted by the Feds. Also, the most commonly used passwords apparently are: love, secret and sex with special mention going to god because system operators have huge male egos. And, finally, hacking is more than just a crime, it’s a survival trait. In some respects, Hackers is the ‘90s answer to Tron as both films feature a brilliant underground hacker infiltrating a large corporate mainframe in order to expose wrong-doings and clear his name. After all, information just wants to be free, right? Their target demographic may be different but their goal is the same: to make an entertaining popcorn movie. When you get down to it, Hackers is silly fun with nothing more on its mind then to have a good time and what’s wrong with that?
Here is a fantastic review of the film over at Cashiers du Cinemart.
“Jonny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie – The Happy Couple.” Empire. June 1996.
McClellan, Jim. “Cyberspace: The Hack Pack.” The Observer. January 8, 1995.
Page, Aubrey. “7 Highlights from the 20th Anniversary Celebration of Hackers, Including Sequel Talk and Fashion Drama.” Indiewire. September 16, 2015.
Penfold, Phil. “Good Work If You Can Hack It.” The Herald. May 3, 1996.