Hackers-A Superhero Movie for Geeks


Hackers came out in 1996 and was notable as one of the early roles of Angelina Jolie. It was also one of the first films to deal with hacker culture and made several references to it in the film.

I personally didn’t see the film when it first came out. I saw the poster and decided it was too much flash. I had also recently seen a sneak preview of Sandra Bullock’s The Net and felt this was going to be something of a copycat film. The public seemed share my reluctance as Hackers failed at the box office. What I didn’t know, however, is that the film became something of an underground cult hit.

Hackers Like Hackers?

When the film showed up at the local midnight movie venue (NuArt Theater! Hello!) I couldn’t resist taking a look. Midnight movies at the NuArt are always fun, and I like to support indie film venues. I expected the regular crowd of irregulars to show up, of course, which is always fun. What surprised me, however, was that the first people in line were actual bonafide hackers!

These guys couldn’t fit the stereotype more. All male, out of shape. One looked like he modeled himself after Richard Stallman; long stringy hair with a bushy beard and mustache combo. They had the stereotypical awkward laugh and joked with each other over programming languages like Clojure while another detailed his use of Perl to modify Java headers. I couldn’t figure out why they were there. Hackers are notorious for their belief of being misrepresented by mainstream media. What made this film different?

If only the 90s were really like this…

The film was introduced by Witney Seibold, who also ran the NuArt, and William Bibbiani of the B-Movies Podcast. William in particular was a crazed maniac who insisted everyone tell people the 90s were exactly like what the film protrayed. They clearly thought the film didn’t get the chance to shine that it deserved, and after the film started, I could see why. It’s very stylish and, sometimes, almost an abstract work. More importantly, it’s clearly a superhero film for computer geeks.

A Superhero Movie for the Geek Crowd

The plot of the film is fairly basic. A brilliant group of misunderstood teens discover a plan to commit the crime of the century and must band together to stop the bad guys. Along the way they must contend with authorities who don’t understand and fear them, but ultimately they prevail. All that, however, is not what makes the film so interesting. What makes the film interesting is that it’s basically a 90s superhero flick. Consider the following points:

  • Superhero names and hacker names
  • Superhero teams and hacker teams
  • Societal outcasts with “special gifts”
  • Mandatory superhero computer graphics effects

Superheros must have cool names

With names like Zero Cool, Crash Override, Acid Burn and The Plague, it’s not hard to take a small step to Iron Man, Captain America, Hawkeye and Black Widow. In both storylines, the name is everything. The only difference is general purpose. In the world of Hackers, these names are something to build a reputation off of. In the world of The Avengers, the names are call signs that describe the purpose of the person they are assigned to. This is a small difference, however, especially when you consider The Plague, a name held by the villain of the film.

Team up! (But fight first…)

There’s a classic trope when it comes to superhero teams. First they fight, then they join, then they stay together. The same is true in Hackers. Here, one hacker finds himself alone, but becomes embroiled in a war against another hacker for escalating bragging rights. Others join in and soon they find themselves putting their differences aside as they face off against another hacker who is all too happy to step on them and others for his own schemes.

The most obvious comparison is The Avengers. Captain American has recently been thawed out of a frozen brick and is tasked to become the leader of a group of highly special individuals, almost none of whom get along with each other. When the Norse god Loki, himself a special individual even among his own kind, leads an invasion to Earth, the superheros must band together for the greater good. There are obvious differences, of course, but clearly parallels as well. It’s a classic trope for superhero team-up origin stories.

Trapped in a world they never made

Anyone who knows about the X-Men understands the premise. A group of mutants, appearing as human but graced with incredible abilities, must protect a world that fears and despises them for being different. Sound familiar? In the world of Hakers, the main characters are trapped in a world that could be their playground, were it not for overzealous FBI agents and civilians who either struggle to understand or view what the hackers do as a kind of black magic. In addition, the hackers possess powers and abilities beyond that of a regular person. Armed with social engineering tactics, photographic memories, tech savvy and above all intelligence, the hackers do their best to blend into society while also knowing they aren’t a part of it. Classic X-Men motif.

CG Effects, Baby!

When I first saw the way the filmmakers were showing the hackers doing their thing, my first thought was Miami Vice. Miami Vice was literally pitched with two words on a napkin: “MTV Cops”. Michael Mann came in to direct the pilot, which was part TV show and part music video, and the rest was history. As the scenes of hackers working began to repeat, I began to think of something else: Iron Man. Although they’re otherwise nothing alike, the graphics of symbools and code floating around the heads of each hacker reminded me of Tony Stark’s heads-up display as he pilots the Iron Man armor. In a sense, it’s a similar visual device. This is how the hackers see their world.

This isn’t to say that I think the filmmakers were ahead of their time; I really don’t think they were sure what they were doing. Even with the existence of Wargames the concept of hacking was still not widely understood or known. The filmmakers were clearly trying to portray the idea of what they were doing without losing the audience with details. By doing so, they accidentally predicted ideas that would come to fruition ten years later.

Conclusions

In retrospect, it shouldn’t have surprised me to see those real life hackers standing in line to see this movie. Hackers is a superhero movie for computer geeks. It’s a story about a special few who are feared and misunderstood pooling their abilities together to stop an villain that only they can face. Everyone likes to see their subculture lionized somehow. Hacker culture is no different. And with hacker culture in the forefront of the public consciousness like never before, this film seems more prescient than dated. Not too bad for a film that bombed at the box office.

About the author

Erik Hentell: I started out in theater before moving to graphic design. I eventually moved into web design while trying to expand my knowledge on software development. I currently work for a media company helping with their digital assets such as source code archives and ebooks.

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