I hate Michael Mann so much right now. Look, I’m a programmer. I might not be able to snag you nuclear lunch codes from a cell phone, but I’ve got the professional background that me seeing movies featuring computers in any capacity is like going to a space movie with a rocket scientist. No one’s going to have any fun. To most people, computers are just magic. There is nothing implausible to most people about the idiotic things that directors toss up on screen, but it is almost physically painful for someone with any real background in technology.
Every time a fashion model with glasses enhances a photo, I throw a small blood clot. Every time a very special agent clicks a mouse twice and pulls up a database of every feed and seed within a seven mile radius of a murder scene that also sells a specific brand of diet soda, a deep pain stabs into my abdomen. And that’s not even getting into what happens to my liver when ‘hacking’ is rendered as typing nonsensically fast while three-dimensional graphics dance around a computer screen. That Tron sequel a couple of years ago? After the credits started, I lost four hours, and woke up in naked in a server farm covered in blood and RAM.
But I’m not mad at Michael Mann because of that. That would be easy, that was expected. I had two paragraphs already in my head going in about how the film’s notion of hacking just broke me. And then Mann went and made the first film I have ever seen that got hacking right.
There are unix shells, what’s typed there on screen does what it’s supposed to do. Everything is text and arcane commands. And most importantly: it gets that hacking has almost nothing to do with computers and everything to do with people. Want to hack into the NSA? You don’t whizzy dizzle the technobabble while breathing hard and groaning like a constipated weightlifter, slapping at the keyboard like a spastic pianist. You forge an email to a guy from his boss in order to get him to open a page that you embedded a key logger into. You spill coffee on a stack of papers and then ask the security guard to please print you another copy of your presentation which is on this flash drive, which roots his computer invisibly.
It avoids the character cliches as well. Hemsworth is freaking Thor, he’s not a hacker stereotype from the Hollywood character bank. The Chinese are the good guys. The NSA is a bunch of douches. The ostensible female lead might be attractive and the romance interest, but she’s also a fully developed character treated as a full equal at every step. Even the FBI handlers, who would typically be either one-note thugs or launched on the well worn trajectory of starting mistrustful and then with a glint in their eyes arriving at grudging respect, are instead treated as competent well developed characters.
For about two-thirds of the movie, this is perfect. The movie is tense, there’s a palpable sense of mystery, of trying to figure out along with the characters what the next move is, what the next layer is, how the disparate pieces that don’t make sense fit into a cohesive picture.
And then the bottom falls out catastrophically.
The last half hour in which we get the revelations and the final confrontations are just so terribly written that I think the screenwriter should get an MRI, because I think he had a stroke on page 85 and then ignored the smell of burnt toast to keep typing. The plot is idiotic, the motivations not even interesting enough to be cliches, and the explanations simply serve to demonstrate that the intricate plans were the deeply stupid machinations of a moron. Instead of everything snapping into place and the mystery making sense, we are left thinking “well if that’s what he was after, why didn’t he just do this. Or this. Or this. Or this.” The film seems to think that its revelations are smart, but they’ve got all the logic of a patented Dewey Crowe plan.
That’s without even getting into Hemsworth’s character’s brilliant plan in the final confrontation of duct-taping a bunch of magazines to his stomach, and rubber banding a sharpened screwdriver to his arm in order to walk into a confrontation with a group of dudes with automatic weapons. After two hours of actually portraying a brilliant hacker, he decides to do this instead of literally anything else in the universe. Like buying a gun. Or calling in the Feds who want this guy. Or the Chinese. Or hiring some thugs of his own with the $75 million he just stole from Blandy McBlackhat. Or just walking away since there is absolutely no story reason why he would feel a need to go John McLane.
Two thirds of the movie, and my mind started to open up, deeply appreciating the mystery and the smart portrayal of hacking. And so my guard was down which allowed the last half hour to kick my brains right in the neuronal nads. Michael Mann, you owe me a lot of alcohol.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.