Hackers (Shout! Factory, PG-13)

hackers 75It’s best not to think too much about either the plot or the computer jargon being spouted by the characters, because neither makes much sense.

 

 

 

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Imagine you’re a teenager and you’re good looking, confident, and smarter than everyone else. You’re not exactly a loner. However, you have a group of really cool friends who are also smart and good-looking, and you and your friends have enough money to buy the stuff you want and pretty much do what you want. Your life is remarkably free of interference from that pesky adult world, and your main concern each day is to impress your peers and just generally be cool. Then something happens that upsets your orderly little world and requires the very specific talents of you and your friends to save the day.

That’s the setup for any number of movies, and Iain Softley’s 1995 Hackers ticks all the right boxes for what might be called the teenage wish fulfillment drama. The new element, which felt a lot newer in 1995 than it does today, is that the central characters are all teenage computer wizards. To really get Hackers, you have to cast your mind back to a time when dial-up modems were the norm and “hacking” was considered as an advanced sort of harmless pranking practiced by a few smart people rather than a widespread form criminal activity performed for the purpose of stealing people’s identities and emptying their bank accounts.

In a brief prequel, we see an 11-year-old Dade (Max Ligosh), clearly proud of himself, in a courtroom. His crime? Unleashing a computer virus that crashed over 1,500 computer systems and caused the value of the New York Stock Exchange to drop. His punishment? Being barred from using computers and touch-tone phones until he turns 18. Like I said, that was a more innocent time. Jumping forward seven years, 18-year-old Dade (played by 23-year-old Jonny Lee Miller, aka Sick Boy from Trainspotting) celebrates his new freedom by hacking into the computer network of a TV station and changing the program to show an episode of The Outer Limits. But Dade is no longer the only show in town, because another hacker using the handle “Acid Burn” breaks into his account, setting off a rivalry that must, of course, lead to a showdown.

Dade attends high school in New York City (the school scenes were shot on the Stuyvesant campus, a highly-regarded public school, but the ethnic mix of students is totally wrong for Stuyvesant), where he falls in with a multi-ethnic group of computer nerds, including Joey (Jesse Bradford), Cereal (Matthew Lillard), Nikon (Laurence Mason), Phreak (Renoly Santiago), and Kate, a.k.a. Acid Burn (Angelina Jolie, in one of her first films). While demonstrating his prowess as a hack, Joey accidentally comes across information that could reveal the criminal activity of an older hacker, Eugene Belford (Fisher Stevens). In response, Belford frames Joey, who is arrested (in the first of several almost identical arrest scenes) by a group of black-clad FBI agents in body armor who burst into his home, high-powered weapons drawn. Hey, if the film wants to endorse sticking it to the man, it has to to make the man look as evil as possible, right?

A lot of intrigue and chasing after a yellow floppy disk ensue, and it’s best not to think too much about either the plot or the computer jargon being spouted by the characters, because neither makes much sense. Where Hackers excels is in visual design and the use of music—in fact, the best approach is to think of it as a music video with narrative inserts. There’s a moment of visual genius early in the film, when the skyscrapers of Manhattan are transformed in Dade’s mind to elements on a circuit board, and in general John Beard’s production design imagines computers as sleek abstractions not far removed from the fantasy sequences that take place in the character’s minds.

Fortunately, the editing by Chris Blunden and Martin Walsh keeps the story moving so quickly that you don’t have time to worry too much about whether something is meant to be real or simply a mental image, and it’s all so shiny and pretty that you won’t care anyway. The soundtrack includes a lot of contemporary, cyberpunk-appropriate music by the likes of Massive Attack, The Prodigy, and Squeeze, and sets the perfect tone for both the period and the story.

Extras on the disc include an informative making-of/looking-back documentary (63 min.) and the film’s trailer. | Sarah Boslaugh

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