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Throwback Review: ‘Hackers’

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Editor’s Note:  Nitehawk Cinema will be hosting a special anniversary screening of HACKERS. It will be a 35mm presentation, and it will feature a Q&A with director Iain Softley as well as cast members Jonny Lee Miller, Fisher Stevens, Renoly Santiago, and Laurence Mason. 

I get it: Hackers in no way represents, in any shade of reality, hacking, hackers, or computer culture in general. The plot is campy, blah, blah, blah. Having said that, it is the greatest computer-related film ever made. Hackers represents the ineptitude and unwavering stubborn attitudes of every authority figure that has ever lived. Here they are rightly treated as pawns, omnipresent but easily sidestepped by our heros. The authority, represented here by oil company execs and the F.B.I., know enough to know that they know nothing. They know they’re pawns and it annoys them, but not enough for them to learn how to use a computer.

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Even ‘Supreme’ made an appearance.

In 1995, when Hackers was released, Angelina Jolie was still just Jon Voight’s daughter, Matthew Lillard hadn’t made SLC Punk (or the unfortunate slew of Freddie Prinze Jr. films that followed), and Jonny Lee Miller was still a year away from Trainspotting. Did this film really come out 20 years ago? After seeing it as a kid, I was sure that I would be a hacker. But don’t worry, after watching it again to write this review, I bought a programming book and yeah, I’m never going to be a hacker. What I can do is emulate the film’s fashion, which is actually amazing. Overwhelming prints, Akira-esque motorcycle gear, cloak hoodies, belts to keep your thighs tight, accessories for days, and of course, rollerblades. Kate, played by Angelina Jolie, could walk off the screen today and fit in perfectly in NYC. Everyone’s outfits are perfect. The film may not have gotten the computer thing right, but damn did they have a crystal ball that saw into the future of fashion.

You might be reading this and wondering what happened to rollerblades. Well, I really don’t know. Everyone interesting in the movie has a pair, except our villain, the Plague, who skateboards. But seriously, someone must have put a fatwa on rollerblading cause that shit is long dead. I dabbled in rollerblading as a kid and tbh I kind of miss it. My guess is someone was skating down the block one day and had his masculinity questioned, and that was that.

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Back to the movie. At its heart, it’s a teen movie about rebellion. The thing it does so well is that it doesn’t fall for the usual tropes of teen movies. You won’t find yourself rolling your eyes at the dialogue (unless you’re a hacker), every character is believable, and the actors’ relationships with one another — platonic and romantic alike — don’t pander to an adult’s version of adolescence. It all feels genuine.

Hackers follows six friends: Dade Murphy a.k.a. Zero Cool a.k.a. Crash Override, Kate Libby a.k.a. Acid Burn, Joey (who has no handle), Ramon Sanchez a.k.a. Phantom Phreak a.k.a. King of Nynex, Paul Cook a.k.a. Lord Nikon, and Emmanuel Goldstein a.k.a. Cereal Killer. I can’t imagine how many of those handles went on to be immortalized as AOL Screen names, but I’m sure there were more than a few.  The film’s MacGuffin is a virus, launched by our villain — the hacker gone corporate, known as the Plague — ontp Ellingson Mineral Company, which promises to capsize its oil tankers if a ransom is not met. In reality the film is about the relationships of a group of brilliant, interesting high school students with wildly fascinating personalities who exist in NYC’s underground hacking/music/fashion community. (Though, I have never seen a group of kids this interesting survive passed freshman year at Stuyvesant High School).

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Joey is the noob. He doesn’t have a handle like the others, his mom dresses him, and he smokes cigarettes two at a time. He lives in Battery Park and his struggle for respect lands his friends into a mess with the F.B.I. Phreak is a Venezuelan kid who lives in Soho, dresses himself, and reminds me of a Venezuelan friend I had in high school, who dressed exactly the same, had the same hair, lived in Soho, and was around the same height. It’s eerie.

Now, my favorite relationship in the film is between Cereal Killer and Lord Nikon, both outcasts who seem to live on their own. While Lord Nikon’s parents are never mentioned, we find out a bit about Cereal Killer’s when Dade asks why he always needs a place to crash: “His parents missed Woodstock and he’s been making up for it ever since.” Their chemistry is palpable; their eyes light up at the presence of the other. Who doesn’t strive for a friendship like that of Lord Nikon and Cereal Killer? The two are simpatico. Lord Nikon with his photographic memory (“It’s a curse”), Cereal Killer with his mild Tourette’s (“Oh! Look at that pooper, man. Spandex, it’s a privilege, not a right”). Throughout the film, these two BFF’s can be seen supporting one another. Nikon lets him sleep over, Cereal gets him a drink at Kate’s party, and Nikon lovingly encourages him in the film’s climax while tenderly holding his shoulders: “Cereal, you can do it! We’re counting on you. You can do it!” It’s a friendship we all wish we had.

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Dade and Kate’s relationship is a complex one. It never finds itself in that hackneyed world of teen love, as represented in movies. Instead, it’s a realistic one. Kate is a girl way ahead of her time. She lives in Tribeca (probably), her mom is a famous feminist writer, and her walls are adorned with Keith Herring prints. From the start of Hackers, the two begin screwing with each other. Kate tells Dade about the pool on the roof, Dade sets off the sprinkler system, Dade puts himself in Kate’s classes, they challenge each other to a sort of “Hack-off,” and when Dade finally asks her on a date, Kate slyly replies, “I don’t do dates.” She is the epitome of cool.

The film’s pace is quick so you never get bored, with cut scenes reminiscent of ’90s video art, in addition absurd glimpses into the inner workings of computers and a soundtrack that makes you wonder what life would have been like had you been old enough to notice it in the ’90s. The music (Orbital, Prodigy, Urban Dance Squad), fashion, and attitude of this cult classic are something that will be appreciated for years to come. In most teen movies, the story’s resolution is usually some trite lesson. The characters accept their place in the world they just spent the entire movie fighting against. Not here. In fact, at the film’s climax, while the F.B.I. busily celebrates their victory, Lord Nikon can be seen stealing floppy discs off an F.B.I. computer and jamming them down his pants. The only lesson in the film is that “There is no right or wrong, just fun or boring.” Hackers is everything we dream computer culture could be: lawless, fun, fashionable, and cool. A far cry from today’s world, where the wrong Tweet, however innocent your intention, can ruin your life.

Review by Timothy White. Follow him on Twitter @TipToTheHip.


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Twitter @TipToTheHip

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