Hackers: A Cinema Review, 1990-2007

So, recently had the pleasure of seeing the action-gasm ridiculousness that is Live Free or Die Hard, which sees Bruce Willis re-establish his title as Biggest Whomping Badass in Modern Cinema (dogg he shoots himself to hit someone behind him).

At the same time, I also had the recent distinct displeasure of seeing Transformers, which had all the makings of the next great American nerd classic — but failed to meet every hope for it. Which is a shame, I was really rooting for it to be awesome. (It ended up feeling like this). Mike will be blogging later, I think, about why, in addition to be badly written, it was a little bit, uh, fascist.

However, both movies are notable for the significant place that hacking, and specifically, computer hackers — play in the plot line. And, like the proud pedigree that they derive from, they’re horrendously horrendously off the mark. But, they’re pretty interesting to consider for their sociological implications: how does a culture understand computers? How do they understand technology?

Hacking in film, of course, has had two major mainstream cinematic linchpins in its short history. The first, of course, is the much mocked Hacker, the 1995 film with Angelina Jolie known for its quotable catch-phrases and weirdly concieved animations to represent how hackers manuver in the Computer World. And Swordfish, the 2001 film with Halle Berry, mostly famous for the scene where the hacker gets a blowjob while having to break into something.

Together, these movies form neat little watermarks for the cultural response to increasing presence of computers in everyday life. Interestingly, I think a closer look at them reveals that a) these movies track how computers are politically framed in the public consciousness, and b) that these movies form a cycle, that is, that the portrayal of hackers in each interact with one another through time in a thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis fashion.

1995. Hacker. 1995 is for all intents and purposes Web 0.9. Walled gardens like AOL/Compuserve are just starting to get popular, and most user experience of the internet, and, indeed, computers in general, is limited as hell. (“I even get the entire internet!“) What the public does see in a real way are the widely publicized activities of hackers and their ability to steal valuable information. 1995 is the Year of Kevin Mitnick. Hacker’s portrayal of hackers is reflective of this. The Plague’s plot renders Corporate America completely powerless to stop him. And the work of Zero Cool and his Pals leaves law enforcement hard pressed to keep up. (See e.g. “Hacking the Gibson”)

Fast forward to 2001 — effectively the year of the dot-com bust. Most press shifts away from reporting on the high flying exploits of computer criminals to the financial rubble left behind as Web 1.0 crumples. Swordfish, not surprisingly, tracks this shift. Hugh Jackman’s character is a burnt-out, failing computer hacker that, instead of etching his vision on the world as in Hackers, essentially becomes a pawn for all the other characters in the movie. (i.e. John Travolta’s character). Swordfish’s Stanley is in some ways the mirror image of Hacker’s Zero Cool: his getting older, has financial troubles, needs to fight his wife in court, and isn’t aware of what he’s getting himself involved in until it happens. What ends up being more important in the movie is Halle Berry’s boobies and the ability to make stuff blow up. In short, computers aren’t important or dangerous: people are. And, as a result, the ‘computer people’ are weak against the exercise of the machine gun or the hired muscle.

Fast forward again to 2007. “Transformers” and “Live Free or Die Hard” sees these two views synthesized. Bush’s war on terrorism and the realization that most of the primary features of modern infrastructure are run on machines brings the power of the computer and network security to the fore once again. But, the 80s-esque return to the cult of the manly man (see the widely-popular return of the Rocky series) also return to the idea that no matter how powerful technology is — a big American guy with big American biceps can still stop the bad guys. There’s plenty of scenes in both movies that emphasize this. “Transformers” features the overblown U.S. military helping the Autobots take down the Deceptacons. And, “Live Free or Die Hard” never misses a beat in having Bruce make fun of the Evil Bad Guy for being a dangerous, but whiny and immature nerd. (I mean, his motivation in the movie is essentially that people wouldn’t listen to how right he was.) Even Bruce’s hacker counterpart plays the same role, constantly regretting how he didn’t realize that his dastardly hacking would cause such problems.

With the political upswing against the anti-terror culture and the increasing prevalence of the Cute Evil Empire Phenomenon, it’ll be interesting to see how this develops. Will the view of computers and hacking change again as we see the increase in nice, seamless managed information products?

Tomorrow I think I’ll finally get back to all that Uncanny Valley hoo-hah.

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