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'Blackhat' bores, but at least gets hacking right

Devindra Hardawar, @devindra
January 17, 2015
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What is it about hackers that invariably stumps Hollywood? Even when filmmakers get the details right, as Michael Mann does with Blackhat, his moody exploration of cyberterrorism, they often stumble when it comes to making us actually care about what's happening on screen. There are rare counterexamples, like The Social Network, which manages to make the founding of Facebook visually and narratively compelling. But, for the most part, films that center on characters pecking away at keyboards are either campy, like Swordfish, or just plain boring, like The Net. And boy, Blackhat is such a snoozefest that I wish it had the cracked-out verve of seeing Hugh Jackman hack while getting a blowjob with a gun pointed at his head (Swordfish is crazy, folks).

SwordfishSwordfish isn't very good, but at least it's got a pulse

The film's premise is, at least, fairly intriguing: What if a merciless hacker got their hands on something like the Stuxnet worm -- the key ingredient in the United States' not-so-covert cyberattack on Iran's nuclear program (which also wreaked havoc across the web) -- and used it to blow up a nuclear reactor? Now that practically everything in the world is connected, the idea that it could all turn against us with the stroke of a key is genuinely terrifying. It's also incredibly timely, following the recent cyberattacks on Sony Pictures and major retailers like Target and Home Depot. But while Blackhat starts off strong, it quickly loses sight of this idea and devolves into a fairly typical thriller -- albeit one that features Mann's eye for aesthetics and elaborate shootouts.

While Blackhat starts off strong, it quickly loses sight of this idea and devolves into a fairly typical thriller.

Blackhat opens with a shot of Earth from space, but instead of the usual view of the continents, we see the crisscrossing of network connections across the globe, looking like the jagged surface of Jupiter's moon Europa. The camera zooms into a computer in a Chinese nuclear power plant, and with the assistance of loads of CGI, we see a backdoor intrusion lead to an influx of malicious code. The power plant's core heats up, and things go boom. The entire opening sequence is an awe-inspiring way of showing the disastrous consequences of someone typing a few keystrokes -- it's just too bad that scene represents the height of the film's visual approach to hacking.

The rest of the movie is filled with people forcefully typing on keyboards, making dramatic swipes on their smartphones or poring over screens filled with code. There's nothing with the energy of seeing The Social Network's Mark Zuckerberg build the proto-Facebook site Facemash, a virtuoso sequence that brought together David Fincher's direction, a thumping electronic score and Jesse Eisenberg expertly spouting Aaron Sorkin's Oscar-winning script (below).

Our gateway into the world of hackers is Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth -- yes, Marvel's Thor), a beefy computer expert who's serving time in a maximum-security prison. He's brought in to stop the cyberterrorist who blew up the power plant, and is also believed to be behind some complex financial market manipulation (for soy futures, of all things). In exchange for helping a joint CIA/Chinese task force to find the bad guy, Hathaway gets his freedom.

It's easy to roll your eyes at a Norse god like Hemsworth playing a computer nerd, but there's something to be said for casting against type (even though it's clearly a cash grab). The big problem is that the film doesn't quite know how to use him -- in some scenes he's a tough bruiser that's good with guns; in others he's a tech wizard. And when it comes to the tech stuff, Hemsworth feels dramatically out of place (he even had to learn to type properly for the film). At one point, Hathaway asks someone for their phone by saying, "Is that an Android?" and it's hard not to think of Jurassic Park's cringeworthy "It's a Unix system" moment.

At one point Hathaway asks someone for their phone by saying, "Is that an Android?" and it's hard not to think of Jurassic Park's cringeworthy "It's a Unix system" moment.


Blackhat is simply confused about what it wants to be. At times, it's a deep cybercrime thriller that taps into our modern zeitgeist of interconnectedness and security fears. And elsewhere, it's an action film, with elaborate shootouts, surprise explosions and set pieces involving hundreds of extras. But, for the most part, it's just dull and lifeless. And, strangely, the most significant cyberattack happens at the beginning of the film -- the frumpy and bland villain's plan at the end isn't nearly as scary as power plants blowing up. I'm not sure how you can make the threat of an all-powerful Stuxnet-like attack boring, but Blackhat somehow managed to do it.

Jonny Lee Miller And Angelina Jolie In 'Hackers'

Jonny Lee Miller, Angelina Jolie and the rest of the "punk" Hackers crew

At the very least, the film deserves credit for its realistic depictions of hacking. It even passed the muster of cybersecurity experts after an early screening, where Google Security Princess (yes, that's her real title) and top hacker Parisa Tabriz called it "the most accurate information security movie I've seen." One character, for example, manages to get malware into a corporate network just by coaxing a security guard into plugging in a USB drive. True nerds will notice a few simple gaffes, like pointing to a web address and calling it an IP address, but those are rare compared to most Hollywood films. But, to be honest, I'd rather watch a movie involving technology with energy, like Hackers (wherein a young Jonny Lee Miller has to elude the Secret Service while stopping a dangerous computer virus), rather than an accurate slog.

Blackhat is simply confused about what it wants to be.

With his previous efforts, Mann paid special attention to visualizing the process of experts at work. Manhunter's depiction of forensics begat CSI and the influx of similar crime shows. And the major heist in Heat reportedly influenced the two gunmen behind the North Hollywood shootout in 1997.

With Blackhat, Mann clearly captures the process of hacking. He just failed to make it interesting.

[Image credits: Legendary Pictures (Blackhat); United Artists/Getty (Hackers)]

In this article: Blackhat, hackers, Michael Mann
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