At The Movies: Hackers (1995)




1995 • 107 minutes • United Artists

I sometimes have trouble parsing the nineties, despite having been consciously alive for some of it. I watched the music video for Krystal Harris’ “Supergirl” last night (apropos of a home screening of The Princess Diaries, which we’ll get to next Friday), and my brain kept imploding. (And yes, I know that The Princess Diaries is a 2001 release, but the nineties lingered, people.) Everything was so familiar, from the cinematography to the styling to beautiful people slowly exiting a car, but the logic behind it felt strange and alien.

The same goes for Hackers, although that sense of familiarity is warped. Oh, there are things you’ve seen before—like the kid’s movie wackiness of the opening sequence, wherein an eleven year old manages to hack enough banking computers to drive the New York Stock Exchange down. But he’s immediately apprehended by a SWAT team seemingly authorized to use brutal force for a white collar crime. Our hero, Dade, moves to a new high school, where he’s hazed by the cool kids and begins to pine for a beautiful girl, Kate. But her sexual interest in him is predicated on his willingness to embrace gender fluidity for her. Hackers from all over the world join forces to help out Dade and his friends defeat the evil hacker known as the Plague. But only after Dade and Kate visit a nightclub where it only becomes obvious at the end of the scene that they’ve been on roller blades the whole time. It’s sort of like staring at, say, Brink, through a lens very, very darkly.

What would, in certain hands, be a perfectly serviceable action-adventure movie about heroic teen hackers thwarting an evil hacker intent on using his skills for evil, becomes instead a stylized, dark thriller moving at breakneck speed. It’s strange, and it has not aged well. It takes Jonny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie, solid actors with great charisma and good chemistry, and purposefully makes them odd and stiff. (Although Dade and Kate’s date at the end of the film, where the two pace nervously before making out in a swimming pool, feels remarkably and adolescently true to life.) Obviously, the Internet and hacking culture has moved swiftly on, rendering a great deal of the hacking in this film either out of date or just plan wrong, but I can’t imagine that it looked a great deal like this at the time. Audiences felt the same way at the time; the film did so poorly at the box office that it only ran for two weeks. In 2016, Hackers feels utterly ridiculous.

But for all of its strangeness, it’s also a very pure film, and that’s what I keep coming back to. Hackers was recently featured on West coast bad movie podcast How Did This Get Made?, an honor that brings with it an oral history by writer Blake Harris. They’re always compelling reads; history is written by the winners, so hearing the losers get to talk is quite refreshing. Everyone involved is happy to talk about the film and the effort they poured into it. But I was particularly struck by how much creative control director Iain Softley, hot off of his 1994 film Backbeat, was afforded. For instance, Softley opted to use practical effects to depict hacking to make it feel less artificial; the result is both vivid and deeply artificial in a way that recalls ReBoot instead of early nineties effects. The film, for all its fits and starts, feels cohesive and whole in a way that many other films don’t. When its strange stylings work, it feels like something out of Brazil or Blade Runner, and you can sometimes fall enough under its spell to give a pass to, say, something as dumb as the Plague picking up a floppy disk in the dead of night by roller skating and hanging onto the door of a moving car. It doesn’t always work, even with accounting for two decades of dust, but when it does, you can see why so many people would honestly believe in this film and how it has become a cult classic instead of a famously bad movie.

I watched this movie on Netflix.

4 thoughts on “At The Movies: Hackers (1995)

  1. NGL, I have a terrible soft spot for this movie. Yes, it’s super outdated (tho, FWIW, it was already passe by the time it premiered), but there’s a certain spark that makes me love it.

    One of the things I’ve always appreciated about it is in how it presents certain aspects of queerness. It’s coded (Dale crossdressing in Kate’s dream, Phantom Phreak’s kitten t-shirt, Razor and Blade’s androgyny club kid-style), but present.

    But then, I guess I don’t have much of a leg to stand on since one of my all-time fave movies is Teen Witch. (LOL)

    • Yeah! It’s that spark that I really respond to.

      I hadn’t made the link between coded queerness and two of your examples, but that makes a lot of sense. And it’s kind of heartening to see that presented as a logical next step for hackers whose manifesto is all about breaking down barriers—five minutes into the future, queerness is more overtly present. Awww, Hackers. ❤

      You certainly have a leg to stand on! Bad cinema is a quality genre all of its own. 🙂 And let's be real: "Top That" is one of the reasons cinema was invented.

  2. The 90’s did linger, didn’t they? I suppose that’s true of most decades. Late 80’s and early 90’s are sometimes indistinguishable. I haven’t seen this movie, but I faithfully follow the How Did This Get Made? podcast, so I heard the episode. Haven’t checked out Blake Harris’ write-ups yet though.

    • Yeah—I sometimes think it’s better to culturally think of everything by half-decades. The late eighties and early nineties are essentially the same.

      The write-up is really nice—everybody who worked on the film obviously enjoyed it and believed in it, which is a nice change of pace from the theatrics behind some of the other movies they’ve covered.

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