Millennial Malaise 03: Hackers

In which the planet is hacked.

In its own way 1995’s Hackers serves as a kind of aesthetic and cultural apotheosis of the concept of the 90s. Here’s a movie that signifies so much of the look and ideology of what seemed important at the time. Even when I sincerely asked about critical studies of the period someone recommended I just watch this movie on repeat as a lesson. It makes sense. Hackers is everything that a tossed off understanding of the decade has come to represent: chunky computers, shoddy CG, roller blades, house music, trip-hop, rap rock, PS1 games, lots of zippers, floppy discs, hyper-color, and Matthew Lillard.

Examining the movie nearly 25 years removed it’s almost impossible to divine if the film takes itself seriously, or is just insane pandering to variety of cultural signifiers at the time. Either way we end up with a bizarre piece of cyberjunk that collides two of the most popular film genres of the time (techno thriller and teen movie) into a melange of imagery and sound. The movie as it stands is less a story than a piece of late 20th century fantasy, where all your dreams can come true with a few taps on the keyboard.

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The plot follows Dade Murphy AKA Zero Cool AKA Crash Override (Jonny Lee Miller), a brilliant child hacker who gets probation for crashing the stock market at age 11. Seven years later he’s a moody teenager who’s moved to New York and looks for new opportunities in his final year of high school. He hooks up with a motley crew of techno cowboys including rival turned lover Kate AKA Acid Burn (Angelina Jolie), chain smoking Joey (Jesse Bradford) fashion aficionado Ramon AKA Phantom Phreak (Renoly Santiago), and drugged out retroist Emmanuel AKA Cereal Killer (Matthew Lillard). They band together to take on corrupt hacker Eugene AKA Plague (Fisher Stevens) while being chased down by the Secret Service.

In all honesty the plot here is kind of tossed off nonsense, it stops and starts and moves from moment to moment with very little care for tension or dramatic setup. The amount of times armed Secret Service agents burst in on half naked teenagers and arrest them to jumpstart the story is laughably high. The clunkiness of the narrative and it’s half-hearted attempts at actual stakes easily makes Hackers fall on the poor side of quality, but at this point in time that’s now why you watch the movie Hackers. No you watch Hackers to get bombarded with the absolute peak pre-Millennial arrogance about technology providing a utopian vision of the future, and the garish visualization of a counterculture that feels like parody, but appears to be entirely earnest.

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What Hackers actually reminds me the most of is U2’s famous Zoo TV tour. Both feature sneering post-modern takedowns of society through media collage, both bank on overstimulation and snarky attitudes, and both take the 90’s position of not knowing where exactly to direct anger and frustration other than vaguely upwards. Bono prank calling the US government isn’t too far from Crash Override breaking into TV stations to play old episodes of The Outer Limits. As time and place performance pieces they both continue to fascinate (though U2, at the time, has the benefit of actually good music).

Which finally brings us to the all consuming, swaggering, hyper-color style of the film. Two sequences up top basically set the tone of the picture. The first being the credits, which see the streets of New York transformed into a kaleidoscopic circuit as house music bleeds through the soundtrack. The other is when Wade gets ready to go to school for the first time. It’s the morning and the mom, for some reason, says New York is the city that never sleeps as Dade heads out the door. The audience is then treated to a bizarre montage of neon advertising lights and kids rollerblading through the halls at high school. It’s almost a piece of Soviet editing theory. The images have no actual relation rather than the associative effect of neon and cool kids at school. There is, of course, house music in the background.

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This type of stylization pops up everywhere. One of the movies favorite little tricks is to pull out associative montages of old films, tv shows, music, and video games to correlate emotion to Wade’s actions. In an early hacking sequence we see him slam code into a computer while the images of cowboys, outlaws, pirates, and rebels flash on screen. When he first sees Kate we get quick inserts of classic film ingenues smiling and being kissed. This technique also highlights that “cool” is a kind of all knowing media saturation. That to be hip and with it you should be able to associate everything you do with some sort cultural item.

And of course there is the depictions of computers themselves, which is so exaggerated and bizarre it’s almost impossible to contend with. Here servers are giant glass towers with files flickering up and down them. Code is represented not by lines of text and numbers, but swirling CG images that recall the absolute best of early music visualizers. When somebody sits in front of a monitor their faces aren’t just lit up. No, the entire image on the screen is projected onto their countenance, as if movie level watt bulbs are placed into laptops.

This all collides into making Hackers an actual piece of fantasy. A dream of the counterculture cooked up by studio heads to sell. And the level of sincerity in its rebel heroes is hard to detect. Are we the audience actually to buy into the grandiose and sexy lifestyle of the teen hacker, or merely buy the soundtrack on the way home from the mall theater. Either way there are some interesting submerged themes lurking in the corners.

One is that Hacker can be seen through a queer lens. Here is a group of misfits who dress in outre fashions and take on assumed identities to find a community that supports them. Their hacker names are more important than their given titles, and the found family is greater than the one they were born into. The other thing is how the androgyny of Jolie’s character is seen as inherently attractive. And there are the sexy dreams Kate has about Wade, wearing a skintight leather dress and rubbing his crotch. There always a hint of sexuality being explored, even if its buried in some pretty blatant homophobia.

There is also the idea of globalism and multicultural attitudes are fundamental to the nature of the online being and hacker. The group Wade joins is pretty blithely multicultural, the Hack the Planet TV show is hosted by Japanese folks, and the final hacking montage features phone calls from the four corners of the globe.

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But these things are all shading on the edges. There’s no real insight into any political or cultural movement other than these things signify cool. In a certain way it’s even more representative of its time than most other projects because of being purely a glossary of the ideas and themes of its world. A signifier of all things of the era, of the technology and fashion and music and modes of transportation above all else. A fantasy of utopian technological freedom unbounded from the state of things as they are. It’s probably why it persists as the standard bearer of the decade it was made in. If a movie solely exists to engage with the ideas of what’s cool at the time, than it will serve mostly as an artifact for the moment it was made.

Odds and Ends

  • Fisher Stevens’ Plague is still cool because he rides a skateboard to a corporate headquarters.
  • The final hack is accompanied with one of the strangest montages I’ve ever seen, featuring twirling phone booths crossfading with code.
  • In the movie the hackers hang out at a place called Cyberdelia, which serves as combo arcade, roller rink, food court, and performance venue aimed at adolescents who can’t purchase alcohol. Did places like this actually exists, or was it something film and television made up so their teenage characters could hang somewhere that wasn’t a bar.
  • Did anyone see this when it was released and think it was cool? I must know.

Next Week: It’s VR for Algernon with 1992’s The Lawnmower Man.

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