Ah, the 1990s. Lately I have been feeling a little nostalgic for that decade, which is a new experience for me as I usually enjoy looking back on the 1980s more. I was born in 1980, after all. I have also been letting the person I live with choose the film that we watch in the evening and to review the next day. This time he landed on Hackers (1995), for some reason. He is an old man, and was old in the 1990s, so it is safe to say that he was not feeling nostalgic for that era, at least not in the same way as me. At any rate, it is strange little film with an interesting cast.
I am not sure Iain Softley, who produced and directed Hackers, really knew anything about being a computer hacker. Then again, neither do I, so there you go. But I did live during the 1990s, and this film does a pretty good job of capturing at least some of the culture of that time. The story focuses on Dade Murphy (Jonny Lee Miller), a young computer genius who had earned a criminal record at an early age for bringing about a small stock market crash. He is not allowed to use a computer again until he is eighteen, and this just so happens to coincide with him and his mother moving to New York City. Entering a new high school, he encounters a group of peers who are also into hacking. Their activities are typically of the somewhat innocent (though still illegal) variety, such as when Dade attempts to take over a local access cable television station so he can watch The Outer Limits. Actually, this activity is made more understandable as the station was then broadcasting some idiotic, racist author talking about his book. One of his new computer friends, Joey Pardella (Jesse Bradford), unwittingly cracks a large corporation’s system and downloads a virus meant to steal money from it. That digital bug was designed by Ellingson’s director of computer security, Eugene Belford (Fisher Stevens), who is the one trying to pull off the heist. Joey’s act was traced, and it provided Eugene with a patsy. Not wanting to let one of their friends take the fall, Dade, along with Kate Libby (Angelina Jolie), Ramόn Sánchez (Renoly Santiago), Paul Cook (Laurence Mason), and Emmanuel Goldstein (Matthew Lillard) all team up (along with a host of other hackers around the world) to take down Ellingson and stop Belford from taking millions of dollars and triggering Ellingson’s oil tankers from spilling their contents into the ocean.
From reading the above synopsis, you might think that the characters in Hackers are kind of square. That could not be further from the truth. Softley immerses the audience in this mid-1990s hacking sub-culture in New York City that may, or may not, have actually existed. I mean, it is a thing in the movie, but I have no idea if it was there in real life at that time. For Softley, each hacker has a handle. Dade was first Zero Cool, but then changed it to Crash Override when he re-emerges in New York City on his eighteenth birthday. Kate is Acid Burn, Ramόn is Phantom Phreak, Paul is Lord Nikon, and Emmanuel is Cereal Killer. Poor Joey never earns a nickname, which is even sadder when you consider that even Belford went by The Plague. That sub-culture, though, is more than just nicknames. Their costuming is alternative, to say the least, and the behaviors and parties are, to put it simply, far from what you would associate with middle America. That is all fine, of course. What brings it back to the realm of a broader understanding is the romance between Dade and Kate. They start off as competitors, but a healthy respect develops between the two as they battle Ellingson. The film ends with their first date, the result of their friends claiming that Dade had won their hacking contest.
Given how out of the ordinary is Hackers, it is hard to see any connection to my Faith in this film. These are hackers, and by definition are people that break the law. Catholicism does not teach people to be scofflaws. Still, there is one of the mottos of St. Augustine, also used by St. Thomas Aquinas (my birth saint), and exemplified by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: an unjust law is no law at all. A powerful sentiment in these times, to be sure. In the film, Belford employs the help of the Secret Service (somehow) in order to use the law unjustly against Dade and his friends and conceal his own criminal activities. I would also praise Dade for acting in a chivalrous manner towards Kate. So well done there too.
Remarkably, Hackers is rated PG-13. There are brief moments of nudity and some swearing. Thus I would not recommend this to the family. In fact, I would not suggest watching this to too many viewers, unless you are in the mood to regret how people used to dress in the 1990s. But if you like soft techno music, “ancient” computing methods, and roller blading, this is the film for you.