Before we begin discussing Hackers, perhaps the most 90’s movie of all time next to Singles, let’s apply our version of the Turning test to it to see if we can consider Hackers a true cyber punk film.
Does it have the title of a Philip K. Dick book but not really have much to do with it?
Nope. This is grounded in the world of phreaks and hackers, as best seen in real life in the documentary Hackers: The History of Hacking.
Is there a lot of rain?
Not so much.
Does the male hero wear dress clothes and/or a trenchcoat?
Oh man, everyone wears a trenchcoat at one time or another, as well as having their own very distinct style of uniform. It’s kind of like The Warriors on a much, much smaller scale.
Do Keanu Reeves, Ben Affleck, Dolph Lundgren or Udo Keir appear in it?
No, but man, I sure wish they did.
Does the internet do something it can’t do yet, yet look dated AF?
That’s this entire movie. Seriously, a lot of the internet appears as if it lives in the characters’ heads as clips from old movies and TV shows, as if this were Dream On (an ancient HBO reference I realize is going over the heads of way too many of our readers). Also: there’s a scene where the Internet is used to turn off a Wally George-style show (I was born in 1972, people) and a videotape of The Outer Limits plays in its place. Low tech in the service of high tech.
Are Stabbing Westward, KMFDM, Ministry or God Lives Underwater on the soundtrack?
This movie didn’t just have one soundtrack, it had three different releases. The first has Carl Cox, Machines of Loving Grace, Leftfield, Underworld and Orbital on it. The second has The Orb, David Bowie, BT and Moby. And the third has those artists plus Fluke and John Lydon. Even better, Simon Boswell, who did the music for Stage Fright and Phenomena, amongst others, did the score.
Is it a crappy version of Blade Runner?
Nope. There is a William Gibson reference, which I may need to add to the test.
Are there numerous Asian-influenced scenes?
Do people use future terms that make no sense?
Are there a lot of whirring sound effects?
Of course they do.
Do people stare at the camera as it moves through a neon-lit strip club?
Yes, it has a party scene that is so opulent that you wonder, “How can these be teenagers?”
Are there rock stars in it?
Yes! Marc Anthony plays an FBI agent. One could argue that Angelina Jolie is beyond a rock star if you want to get technical.
Is there a feral child?
I’d argue that every single one of the Hackers is a feral child.
By following the rules of this text, as designed by our team of engineers here — me, basically — the ruling is that Hackers is not post-apocalyptic (barring a Tenebre-level in the director’s head twist) nor is it cyberpunk. It is, however, an ancient future film and one that had my wife wondering, “Was this what the nineties were like?” She was born in 1984 and I have to confess to you, dear reader, that my 90’s were spent in college and working eighty-plus hour a week advertising jobs.
I told her, “This is what it was like all the time.”
Back in August of 1988, a hacker named Zero Cool used his 1200 baud modem to crash 1,500 computer systems and cause a seven-point drop in the NYSE. It turns out that said hacker was really eleven-year-old Dade Murphy, who is banned from all computers and touch-tone phones — how would he call 911? — until he turns eighteen.
Literally the day he turns legal, Dade becomes Crash Override and pulls off that VHS switcheroo we discussed above. He’s met and countered by another hacker named Acid Burn, who kicks him out. Oh yeah — and he’s also played by Johnny Lee Miller now.
He has a new school and has to fit in. Magically, this school has an entire roster of hackers who all follow the Hacker Manifesto.
“This is our world now… the world of the electron and the switch. We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias… and you call us criminals. Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity.”
Ramon “The Phantom Phreak” Sanchez: Able to get into any phone system, he’s played by Renoly Santiago from Dangerous Minds and Con Air.
Emmanuel “Cereal Killer” Goldstein: Matthew Lillard is this guy, who seemingly dresses as if he was inside the Matrix four years before that movie ever got made. He’s also edgy and wears dresses because he’s a hacker and hackers do whatever they want. Lillard was also 25 when this was made, making him the oldest of the high school hackers.
Paul “Lord Nikon” Cook: Given this name because he has a photographic memory, this hacker is played by Laurence Mason.
Joey Pardella: Played by Jesse Bradford, he’s the youngest member of the group and has not yet earned his hacker code name (when I went to my first hackathon, they have us all printed name badges that many of us covered up with electric tape so no one could tie our faces in to our handles; I was 14 and my parents dropped me off. I was the youngest person there by several decades).
Kate “Acid Burn” Libby: Pretty much considered the greatest hacker around, she’s the frenemy of our lead and a rich girl who throws indulgent parties. She’s also Angelina Jolie and coming into her peak of power here. This part was originally going to be played by Katherine Heigl, who did the second Under Siege movie instead.
Crash Override has to prove himself to his new hacker buddies, so he breaks into “The Gibson” — yay cyberpunk reference — the supercomputer that runs the Ellingson Mineral Company. While downloading a garbage file as proof, his mother — who is convinced he’s back to his evil hacking ways — unplugs the computer.
This brings him to the attention of sell-out hacker turned computer security officer Eugene “The Plague” Belford (Fisher Stevens, which when you think about it is amazing casting, as just eight years earlier he was playing the hero version of the hacker role in Short Circuit; Johnny Five would not be pleased by this turn of events). Yes, he is pulling off the Richard Pryor Superman III scam that would one day become the Office Space scam.
It turns out that the file our hero has downloaded isn’t garbage. It’s a virus that will destroy a fleet of oil tankers that The Plague plans on taking advantage of and blaming hackers. He brings in the Secret Service to go after our heroes, who have to use their powers of typing, logging on and pranking people to win the day.
There’s also an internet TV show called “Hack the Planet” that for some reason has no buffering issues, which remain a problem in 2021 much less in 1995 when this was made.
Also — how about getting Lorraine Bracco as our hero’s mom, Felicity Huffman as an attorney and Penn Jilette as Hal, an IT guy who gets no nickname? Plus, that bearded London-based hacker? That’s David A. Stewart of Eurythmics!
This is my favorite fact about this movie: “The cast spent three weeks getting to know each other and learning how to type and rollerblade.” Yes, rollerblading is an essential part of the plot!
Director Ian Softly — who also made Backbeat — would go on to direct K-PAX, a movie in which Kevin Spacey eats a banana skin and all.