A couple of days ago I sat down to watch Hackers on Netflix. I missed that movie when it came out in 95 and was curious on why it’s considered a cult movie. I can see the appeal and the reason why it’s considered a cult movie. It’s campy, rebellious, and Angelina Jollie wears leather. But it’s cult for all the bad reasons that a movie is considered cult. It’s not an underappreciated movie that was too ahead of its time. Let’s just say this one is cult because only a cult would be crazy enough to champion it.
When I finished watching it I was terribly disappointed. But more than disappointed, I had complex feelings about it. I felt sad and angry. I got all worked up and drove my wife crazy talking about computers in movies. The question that kept coming up is, “Has there been any movie about computers, or computer culture, that’s been fair?”. Note that I’m not asking if there’s been any that have been good or bad. But just fair. This question drove me to do some research. Meaning doing some Google searches and reading Wikipedia entries.
When Roger Ebert reviewed Hackers back in 95, he cited Andy Ihnatko’s impression of the film:
“Hackers wasn’t even in theaters before attacks on it started online. It represents a new genre, “hacksploitation,” Mac expert Andy Ihnatko grumbled on CompuServe, adding that like a lot of other computer movies it achieves the neat trick of projecting images from computer screens onto the faces of their users, so that you can see graphics and data crawling up their chins and breaking over their noses.”
This Hacksploitation term encapsulates it perfectly and it starts to answer part of my question. Think for a moment of movies that deal with computers. With the exception of You’ve Got Mail, which was a giant AOL advertisement, computer users are either hackers, or are either hackers. That’s not a typo. They’re dangerous people and can destroy civilization as we know it.
The list of movies about the computer world are either thrillers or science fiction. That’s actually a good definition of a Hacksploitation movie: Blurs the line between a thriller and sci-fi film. Another and even better definition could be: A movie that gives homage to the computer culture but sadly getting everything totally wrong about how computers work.
In the 80’s we had WarGames and Tron. If you were into computers, these movies were the best thing ever. A hacker almost starting World War III? That’s totally boss. Tron was like a PBS special on computer programming that used special effects to give give visual analogies.
But in the 90’s it’s when it really started getting weird and exploity. We had Lawnmower Man, Jonny Mnemonic, Hackers, The Net, and The Matrix. Three of those came out in 95. The Net, were Sandra Bullock plays the most unbelievable hacker in the world, looking more like she should be hosting The View, almost felt out of the Hacksploitation category until the floppy made the screen flash different images and made rapid swoosh sounds.
(The made for TV film, Pirates of Silicon Valley, could be included, but it’s more of a documentary. I wouldn’t classify it as Hacksploitation. That’s just a great and underappreciated film about the industry.)
The problem with these movies is not that they were bad or good. It’s just how wrong it got the computer stuff. The flashing code blown up in 3D so you could understand how they hacked. The totally bananas user interfaces. The stereotypes, which were really off the mark stereotypes. (Raver look?!) They had an agenda and the agenda was that computers and computer people are trouble.
It’s perfectly understandable. In those two decades, (80’s and 90’s) if you told someone that you were a computer programmer or just worked with computers, people couldn’t help to picture someone from Revenge of the Nerds. Even in the mid to late 90’s, computers and the internet was still this fringe activity. It wasn’t completely understood that computers were simply tools to make things.
So we get to the new millennium. The internet finally explodes. Blogging, social networking, and all that stuff starts happening. Computers are understood more as devices to create and consume media, than to code and hack. You would think Hollywood would know better. But they come out with Swordfish and Antitrust. Don’t get me wrong, Swordfish was badass, but it’s still a Hacksploitation film. In the oughts the films got more sophisticated: Firewall and Live Free or Die Hard are two that come to mind. It remains to be seen how would they hold up, but compared to films like The Net, they’re not as embarrassing.
There is a glint of hope though. In Fincher’s The Social Network we are finally given a straight up, raw computer nerd. Fake Mark Zuckerberg. This film had to address computers and web culture. That was a big part of the story. But it does so fairly in a non-dramatic way. Non-dramatic to a fault even. With The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo were getting another hacker, a goth-punk-new-raver something that happens to know a lot about computers. I haven’t seen the Fincher film, but I saw the Swedish version, and the most computer-y thing I remember the lead character doing is transferring jpgs on a Mac.
Circling back to the conflicting feelings, the “good thing” is that a movie like Hackers would never be made again. People no longer think that computers are creepy, or hard to understand. But that’s also the “bad thing”. I’m not so sure if kids would be as inspired to get into computers by watching fake Zuckerberg creating a social network, than how probably Broderick’s character in WarGames hacking into military computers inspired thousands.
The irony of it all is that the only people who could truly love these films, or equally hate them, are the same people they’re exploiting. The geeks, the nerds, and the jackals. Hacksploitation is dead. Long live hacksploitation.