Monday, October 18, 2010

Hackers (1995)

In the Camp vs. Irony article I attempted to make clear distinctions between a work of overt camp and an obvious tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of camp tendencies. Primarily though the use of music videos from the 1980s, I hoped to show the difference between a sincere and insincere corniness and how it ebbed and flowed throughout the source material.

However, by choosing a decade which I barely lived through, I succeeded in separating myself from the perception of this material when it was originally released. It wasn't until I re-watched 1995's Hackers that I realized how different people perceive these materials when it is your nostalgia. While the movie did not have a significant impact on me at its release, the culture it represents did. It's easy to look at this movie in retrospect and realize how ridiculous it is. But if you were an adolescent male in the mid to late 90s, a movie like Hackers shows how completely stupid your perception of cool was at that time.

I'll never know why virtual reality helmets didn't catch on. Oh right, because they were bulky and didn't work and were never cool ever.

After Dade Murphy (a.k.a. Zero Cool a.k.a Crash Override a.k.a. Jonny Lee Miller) hacks 1,507 computers before his first chest hair, G-Men raid his house with assault rifles blazing (extremely necessary for a work of non-violent cyber-terrorism perpetuated in a suburban neighborhood). A judge forbids him from touching a computer before his 18th birthday, and his understanding but frustrated mother (Alberta Watson) finds herself divorced with a young son wanted by the Feds.

Come on men crowd inside! Your long range assault rifles work great in this family's cramped hallway!
Mom and Dade move to the heart of New York City, one of the most desirable places to live in the world. Even though such a place would be the BEST THING EVER to someone who nicknames himself "Zero Cool" without a hint of irony, this doesn't stop Dade from being an impudent brat to his mother at every opportunity. Sucking down Coca-Cola at the break of dawn, Dade jerks his bleach-blonde head back at his mom's every word. Remember kids: this is the protagonist. He represents you.

"Why is my monitor so dark?"

Not surprisingly, Zero Dade ingratiates himself to and completely wows everyone in his high school's active and vibrant hacker culture. New York is a mecca of cyber-pirates and and hot nerd chicks, the hottest and nerdiest being Kate Libby, also known as Acid Burn (Angelina Jolie). On the surface, Kate seems like a strong, independent female character in a predominantly male culture. She holds her own in a sea of testosterone and comes out on top in the end. Girl power!

That is, until she must acknowledge Dade's undeniable awesomeness at everything she loves, reluctantly asking for his expert assistance until she is wooed into submission. Kate is wish fulfillment incarnate; an idealized sexual object for the film's core demographic: sweaty adolescent nerds with little to no experience with women. So basically me ten years ago.

She's like a dude except I want to do her!

While Hackers is a sexist movie, its sophomoric lens does not focus only on women. It handles race relations with the same offensive innocence. The hacker gang is tailed by Special Agent Richard Gil (Wendell Pierce). Gil is a determined and honest African American man who's devoted his life to law enforcement and curbing the dangers of cyber-terrorism. This of course makes him a perfect target for a series of racially insensitive pranks! Dade and the crew empty his bank account, flood his police record with erroneous felonies, and give his phone number to a sex hotline. It never crosses their minds that turning an upstanding black law enforcement agent into a poor, perverted criminal might be a little racist, but again, this is an adolescent movie appealing to adolescent minds. Gil represents authority, and his race is secondary to the film's portrayal of an oblivious and bumbling federal government.

"Ow what are you doing? Didn't you take a semiotics class in college?"

Hackers does show interesting dichotomous and contradicting elements of hacker culture. Zero Cool and his gang of misfits represent a cyber counterculture to those symbols of authority, digital and physical, which seek to control their lives. While actively fighting against the forces of faceless corporate greed, they willfully take part in branding and consumption. The kids grab handfuls of McDonald's french fries and bottles of Jolt. Nordica clearly gave generously to the film to have its Rollerblades featured endlessly throughout. Even before the opening titles, United Artists proudly places its logo on a film which glorifies piracy.

Brought to you by Q-Zar™.

Though Hackers is a constant contradiction, it acknowledges that these contradictions are part of the culture. When elite-in-training Joey (Jesse Bradford) is arrested for cyber-terrorism, he is placed in a substance abuse program for his computer addiction. He passionately insists that he is not an addict, all the while chugging coffee and sucking down cigarettes.

Like a love letter written by a 10 year old, Hackers is a glorification of 90s cyber culture without truly understanding what it is. There are hints of brilliance in a film that was the first of its kind. The soundtrack is surprisingly phenomenal in a post-grunge period of particularly embarrassing music. It's fun to look at such a silly film in retrospect and nitpick its foibles, but it (clumsily) predicted the rise of the Internet and importance of cyber security. Though it romanticizes a 90s hacker culture which appears quaint by today's standards, it could just as easily represent iPhone owners or Twitter junkies. I can laugh at these kids as they salivate over Kate's 28.8 kbps modem, but it's this intellectual fetishization which fostered such technological advancement. I'm no cooler than Zero Cool or any of his elite chums, I just have the benefit of smug hindsight.

Quotable quotes

Zero Cool: That's a nice score for a girl.

The Freak: Ya wanna be elite? Ya gotta go a righteous hack.

Razor (or Blade): Jolt Cola. THE soft drink of the elite hacker.

The Plague: Try to stay out of trouble, okay?
Zero Cool: Blow me.
The Plague: Thank you!

The Freak: Yo check this out guy! It's got a 28.8 kbps modem!

Acid Burn: I hope you don't screw like you type.

The Plague: We are samurai. The keyboard cowboys. And all those other people who have no idea what's going on are the cattle. Moo.

Arbitrary rating system:

3 McRibs and 2.8 liters of Jolt.


The original teaser trailer.

Yep. Television pretty much has this "computer lingo" thing figured out.


  1. This is what happens when uptight people read Neuromancer.

    Nick, your comparison of the movie to a love letter written by a 10-year-old is very well made.

  2. I really, really enjoyed reading this review. Your best analysis touches on the fact that Hackers deserves a hint of respect even though it got almost everything wrong about the silver age of cyber punk. Also - Angelina Jolie made her first debut as a walking paradox of gender relations and has never looked back. And I love her for it.

  3. >Lord Nikon: Try to stay out of trouble, okay?
    >Lord Nikon: Thank you!
    >Lord Nikon: We are samurai. The keyboard cowboys. And all those other people who have no idea what's going on are the cattle. Moo.

    >Lord Nikon

    You mean "The Plage". Lord Nikon is the black hacker with photographic memory.

    1. Thanks for the correction. I'll edit the article (but leave your comment as evidence of my shame).