Take away the nostalgia, and the best you can really say about Hackers is that it’s an interesting cultural artifact, a movie where the technology practically feels like it’s from the dark ages, yet it was released during the same year as the first Toy Story. It’s kind of beguiling to think the same year a groundbreaking computer animation film was released that characters in computer-thriller were in complete awe of the power behind a 28 bit dial-up modem. I guess that’s a testament to how rapidly computer technology has advanced in the past 15 years, but it’s still quaint to imagine a virus spread through dial-up modems could capsize oil tankers out in the middle of the ocean. But, then again, Matthew Broderick nearly caused World War III in 1984’s Wargames with an IMSAI 8080.
Hackers is also a ridiculous movie, a mish-mash of attractive people skating around on roller blades (why?) or staring at a computer screen while we get the POV of floating through a maze of screensaver graphics. It might have seemed visually ahead of its time in 1995, but in 2010, it’s as painfully dated as Matthew Lillard’s goofy Shaggy shtick (why did he have dreads?). From a privacy perspective, it’s also amusing to note how easily we’ve given over to the loss of it. When Lillard’s character, Cereal Killer, rues the Orwellian notion that we could sit at home, “and do like absolutely nothing, and your name goes through like 17 computers a day,” it’s hard not to laugh at the fact that, in 2010, our names could go through thousands of computers a day, and no one thinks much of it. In 1995, cell phones were a foot long and had antennas as long as swords; today, they fit in our pocket, they play music, we can surf the Internet with them, and soon enough, we’ll probably be able to use them to scan our groceries and pay for them at the market.
Hackers centers around Dade “Zero Cool” Murphy (Johnny Lee Miller), who — as an 11-year-old in 1988 — managed to crash a whopping 1507 computer systems and caused the stock market to fall a whole seven points. For that, he had his computer privileges taken away until his 18th birthday, but despite not having computer access for seven years, Dade still knows his way around the hacker world when, on his 18th birthday, he hacks into a local television station and changes the programming to an episode of “Outer Limits,” only to be hack-blocked by Acid Burn.
After moving to NYC when his mother is transferred to another job, Zero Cool finds out who Acid Burn is: Kate Libby (Angelina Jolie), owner of that super-fast amazing 28.8 bit dial-up modem, and the leader of a group of hackers. A feud erupts between Dade and Kate, and they end up in some sort of hacker face-off, where they attempt to see who can fuck up the life of Secret Service Agent, Richard Gill (Wendell Pierce), the most. This because he is on the hackers’ shit list after he busted Joey (Jesse Bradford) for accessing and downloading a garbage file from Ellingson Mineral Company, a garbage file that contains information about Eugene “The Plague” Belford’s (Fisher Stevens) worm, which siphons money from the company like the scam in Office Space. The Plague has also unleashed The Da Vinci virus, which will somehow capsize oil tankers and place the blame on the hackers, who have to stop the virus and retrieve the missing information about the worm before the secret service busts them, which they aim to do by typing really fast.
Honestly, Hackers is a huge, nonsensical mess, and I can’t imagine it gets anything right about the existing cyber-hacker culture at the time. Matthew Lillard is painful to watch, and Fisher Stevens is the least convincing cybervillain in the history of mankind. He is fucking awful, and Lorraine Braco should never have to play the evil, dim blonde sidekick in any movie, ever again.
And yet, even in 2010, I’ll concede that there’s something weirdly enjoyable about watching Hackers. It’s a candy-coated 80s movie stuck in 1995, and Jonny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie are too goddamn pretty not to suck you in. There’s barely an iota of suspense, the music blows, the acting is atrocious all around, and the plot makes about as much sense as the Bieber phenomenon. But it’s transfixing. You can’t look away. The Fisher Stevens’ camp is addictive. The screensaver graphics are mesmerizing. Jolie’s cherubic face is captivating, and for about 18 months in the mid-90s, Jonny Lee Miller was one of the coolest actors on the planet before we realized he had the talent of lettuce.
But it was a good run, wasn’t it?