HACKERS. Cyberpunk sci-fi and genuine (guilty?) pleasure

In the intricately crafted yet remarkably simple editing transition used at the beginning of Hackers, the main idea conveying the film is emphasized.

Jakub Piwoński

26 December 2023

HACKERS. Cyberpunk sci-fi and genuine guilty pleasure

The bird’s-eye view of the urban jungle smoothly transforms into the interior of a computer. This technique not only outlines similarities in the appearance of urban architecture and motherboard layout but, above all, indicates the prism through which the titular hackers view the world.

One of them is Dade Murphy. When he was eleven, he made quite a feat. Operating under the pseudonym Zero Cool, he hacked into Wall Street computers and disabled 1,507 devices, which brought him fame among hackers but resulted in a hefty fine for his parents. Seven years after this incident, Dade shows no signs of humility. Eager for challenges, he confronts the hacking kingpin (and a security expert privately), The Plague, who involves him in a globally-reaching intrigue. Dade must break the code of a virus that could lead to a catastrophe, for which he would ultimately be held responsible. In short, this is the plot of Hackers, a thriller from 1995 directed by Iain Softley.

Hackers Jonny Lee Miller Angelina Jolie Laurence Mason Matthew Lillard

Although today this term is often overused, in the case of this film, it is not added gratuitously – Hackers is undoubtedly a cult film. It fulfills all the criteria for this prestigious status. It was never a critic’s favorite, nor did it conquer cinemas. However, after its release on home media, it entered a second life. Softley’s film became a true icon not only for the hacker subculture and the computer geeks’ community but also for those raised in the constant company of new media, which played an increasingly significant role in the daily life of 90s society.

Screenwriter Rafael Moreu worked closely with hackers, closely observing their practices. This led him to bold conclusions – according to him, this misunderstood and discredited practice is, in fact, the embryo of the next stage of human evolution. This can also explain why Hackers balances on the border of two genres – thriller and science fiction (Softley will later apply a similar ambiguity in the movie K-PAX). Many of the technological elements seen in the film, especially the imaginative visualizations of cyberspace, have little in common with the capabilities of that time. Although some critics considered it a flaw, others, including Roger Ebert, understood that technology in Hackers serves as a symbolic role, just as archeology does in Indiana Jones.

Hackers Angelina Jolie

Therefore, although the hackers in Hackers are firmly planted in our world, their thoughts are wildly imaginative. This is intended as a nod to the tradition of the cyberpunk subgenre, foreseeing the future impact of technology on our lives. Not without reason, one of the closely guarded computers that the film’s protagonist hacks into is named “Gibson.” This is a clear reference to William Gibson, the creator of Neuromancer, a book considered the beginning of cyberpunk, and the author himself – the progenitor of the concept of cyberspace. I have the impression that these flashy animated effects, aimed at making hackers’ practices more attractive, influenced the film’s timelessness. Because although its characters still save data on a floppy disk, the network, the virtual reality they enter, has a universal character.

Hackers Matthew Lillard

When recalling Hackers, one should not forget a very important element that influences both its uniqueness and emphasizes its technocratic character – the memorable soundtrack. It consists of real hits of electronic music, a delight for the ears of participants in the popular rave parties of the 90s. On the soundtrack, you can find songs from such bands as Massive Attack, Orbital, Underworld, and finally The Prodigy. From such an excellent selection, it is indeed challenging to point out one song that best accompanies a particular scene. In my opinion, all of them are full-fledged and inseparable stylistic tools, creating a unique atmosphere and remarkably intensifying emotions.

These emotions also affected the actors. In the film, the unforgettable duo – Johnny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie – plays the first fiddle. This combination – geeky intellect and secrecy, combined with feminine wildness and sensuality – produced a truly explosive effect. However, it turns out that not only on the set but also off it. Interestingly, the natural closeness visible in Hackers between Miller and Jolie transformed into a marriage. Although the couple did not withstand the test of time and separated three years after the wedding, they reportedly remain friendly to this day. But their example also proves how difficult it is to play on-screen infatuation while keeping emotions in check.

Hackers Angelina Jolie

In a sense, Hackers reminds me of another film by Danny Boyle, released a year later – also a cult film – Trainspotting. And I’m not just talking about the obvious connection in both films in the person of actor Johnny Lee Miller. A great soundtrack helps in the reception of both stories – that’s one thing. They both, although in completely different spirits, deal with a certain form of addiction. However, Hackers is unique in that their drug, although also continuously encouraging disconnection from reality, can lead to positive results. Therefore, it is far-reaching that these anarchistic outsiders in Hackers may represent hope for humanity.

Jakub Piwoński

Jakub Piwoński

Cultural expert, passionate about popular culture, in particular films, series, computer games and comics. He likes to fly away to unknown, fantastic regions, thanks to his fascination with science fiction. Professionally, however, he looks back more often, thanks to his work as a museum promotion specialist, investigating the mysteries of the beginnings of cinematography. His favorite film is "The Matrix", because it combines two areas close to his heart - religion and martial arts.

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