I Love Terrible Movies: "Hackers"

The beginning of the film really is quite good, in a goofy 90s-teen-movie way. But then Fisher Stevens shows up, and the whole thing takes a hard left for the Camptown Races.
Publish date:
September 15, 2011
nerds, angelina jolie, 90s fashion, bad movies

“Hackers” appeared in the fall of 1995 with the tagline, “Their crime is curiosity,” which was totally misleading: their crimes were also hacking into banks across state lines and crashing the New York Stock Exchange, not to mention vandalism, jaywalking and some clothing choices that probably warranted jail time.

The plot, in rough strokes, is this: Dade Murphy (Jonny Lee Miller, AKA Sick Boy from “Trainspotting”), a hacking child prodigy fresh off probation and legally able to use a computer for the first time in seven years, moves to NYC with his awesome recently divorced mom. There he befriends a group of like-minded teen deviants at school, and our Lycra-clad heroes are framed for planting a virus that will ultimately cause a major ecological disaster if they can't make the truth known.

The teen hacker gang is pretty great. Matthew Lillard is here, predictably playing his mid-90s mixture of charming and irritating. A young Angelina Jolie is on board; this is “Foxfire”-era Jolie -- i.e., when I and everyone I knew was madly in love with her -- and she plays expert hacker Kate with a chilly demeanor and self-assurance I would have killed to possess at 18.

Kate is the best thing about this movie, as she manages to be smart and confident without being annoying, and stubborn and petulant without being shrewish. She also manages to go the entire film without once wearing a bra.

The second best thing is protangonist Dade Murphy’s mom, whose relationship with her son is sweetly close, but does not cross the line into creepy or oppressive. She gives him a hard time for being a dumb teenager, but also stands up for him when necessary. Their interactions are real and refreshing.

So now you’re thinking, “But Lesley, this sounds like a GOOD movie! What’s up?”

The beginning of the film really is quite good, in a goofy 90s-teen-movie way. But then Fisher Stevens shows up, portraying “The Plague,” a reformed (?) middle-aged trenchcoat-clad vest-loving skateboard-riding mattress-on-the-floor-sleeping hacker who now works as a security consultant at the company whose big giant world-ruling computer system has been compromised.

Even putting that aside, there is a whole lot of WHA? in this movie. Penn Jillette appears as Stevens’ security lackey, Mark Anthony -- yes, the former Mr. Jennifer Lopez -- is a witless federal agent. Felicity Huffman shows up as an attorney for two seconds at the film’s opening. Lorraine Bracco is Stevens’ girlfriend and PR manager at the company where they both work.

Everyone under the age of 20 wears rollerblades at one point or another, and the costume design is reminiscent what of it would have looked like if "Back to the Future 2" was outfitted by the Salvation Army.

But where the movie really falls down is in trying to make hacking into a visually exciting endeavour. Have you ever watched someone write code? It’s not very interesting to look at. It’s not like sports, I mean. “Hackers” tries real hard to make it engrossing by portraying computers as three-dimensional cityscapes and using variations on the Windows Mystify screensaver to represent Really Important Secret Files, and by projecting all of the above onto the actors’ faces while they type. It’s not quite believeable. Nor are the many parties our heroes attend. I have been to nerd parties. They are not like that.

Add to all this the technobabble that seems to have been written by someone with only the vaguest notion of how computers (and hackers) work. By the final scene, when the whole thing ends with one of the most heinously out-of-place songs I have ever heard, I’m usually right at the point where I’d turn it off in disgust anyway, if it weren’t ending of its own accord.

Acknowledging all of the above, I love “Hackers.” It’s clever, eminently quotable and enjoyably cheesy. Also, Angelina Jolie is a mad hot badass in it. But it’s not a good movie. I don’t care what Roger Ebert has to say on the matter.