ROUNDING out February at Torments, Dan takes a look at a slab of indelibly delicious zeitgeist cheese.
Some films define a generation. Some, like Xanadu and Road House, actually kill a decade. And then there are the films that embody the ethos of an epoch; films that, when placed under the microscope of hindsight-laden cynicism, absorb the monolith of pop-culture into a distilled, perfectly-realised facsimile of its time. Hackers, in all its liber-tude-inous, crass, aggressively terrible glory, is one such masterpiece. It extracts everything that was mortifying from the 1990s – pudding bowl haircuts; Day-glo fashion; rad bodacious lingo among them – in order to blend a perfect cocktail of bad taste and instant irrelevance.
This film could not be more 90s if Sonic the Hedgehog, with Ed Furlong’s face, rocked up on a skateboard while Nevermind roared in the background on a tidal wave of formaldehyde sharks and Kevin Costner’s ego. This is as 90s as scooters and Pokémon cards, where clocks are made out of Bop-Its and the walls bleed Johnny Bravo and Thom Yorke still had that horrific peroxide mop.
Hackers was released at the exact mid-point of the 90s and all – 1995 – meaning that Charles and Diana were still married, the OJ trial was ongoing and, most pertinent to our current interests, the World Wide Web had only just been made widely available. This also means that Hackers was, quite possibly, once upon a time, cool. Watching the film from a distance of 22 years on an international streaming service available at the touch of a button, it seems hilarious and quaint and utterly implausible, but the film nonetheless retained a cult following, ironic or otherwise.
That’s partially because it is hilarious and quaint and utterly implausible, but it’s important to remember that Hackers was capitalising on a zeitgeist. This isn’t high art, and it was never intended to posit thoughtful commentary on the state of American culture. It is, in the Roger Corman derivation of the term, exploitation cinema at its exploitative peak.
Focusing, appropriately enough, on the burgeoning hacker sub-culture that would forever come to be misrepresented in Hollywood circles to increasingly hilarious degrees (see: Swordfish), the film follows Dade ‘Crash Override’ Murphy (Johnny Lee Miller, a year away from Trainspotting) and his cyber-tastic misadventures among the hacker alumni of a high school and their uber-gnarly nightclub hangout, Cyberdelia. He meets Kate ‘Acid Burn’ Libby (Angelina Jolie), engages in stand-offish will-they-won’t-they bullshit, before confronting the least intimidating villain ever (Fisher Stevens having fun) in a cyber-duel for the ages.
Putting aside the fact this film is so 90s it bleeds crisp tears of undiluted ‘tude is impossible, but we’ll try anyway. To start: Hackers equates ‘hacking’ with ‘magic’. There’s no other way to describe it. Viruses somehow manifest on computer monitors as the hacker’s gurning face. Lightning-quick finger-taps on the keyboard conjure images ripped from 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the stars are code and the code is bullshit.
Whereas The Matrix made cyber-punk look cool and edgy, with sexy monochromatic people dancing through bullets and spouting code babble, Hackers dons its residents in ponchos and midriff-exposing tank-tops, looking more like the future of The Fifth Element than any human being to ever walk the earth. Though writer-director Iain Softley does provide the film with moments of visual flair – like the silhouette of Miller framed against the smoke-strewn street in the dead of night – these moments are few and far between, standing out as legitimately cool than the affectations of the concept that Hackers constantly applies to itself.
The editing is frenetic and high-pitched, rapidly switching between frames of space-hackery and quick head jerks from the cast, and its MTV-lite style does a lot to distract from how broad the writing and acting is. There’s so much neon and luminescent green here that CyberDog would piss itself in response; on the other hand, most of the performances are so bad that CyberDog would probably piss in its own mouth. (CyberDog is an actual dog, right?)
Let’s talk about Matthew Lillard. We’ve talked about him before. His moniker in Hackers is ‘Cereal Killer’. I don’t know why. I couldn’t hear him over his endless gibbon screeching and kaftan and pigtails. Lorraine Bracco either couldn’t give a shit or had no idea what she was saying, because every word out of her mouth sounds wrong. Jolie and Miller are serviceable but don’t really add much beyond eye candy and don’t get the opportunity to either. There’s a perfunctory element to the interactions but, weirdly, they all seem improvised because the script sounds so absurd and almost surreal. “Never fear; I is here,” says Fisher Stevens. This is a line.
Really, though, what’s the point in critiquing a film like Hackers? It is unapologetic, schlock-cheese grindhouse for the Web 2.0 generation that could only have been made in the 90s, chugging Sunny D until the cows come home. Sure. Its most prescient facet, however, is not even its own. It’s taken from the Hacker’s Manifesto: “This is our world now: the world of the electron and the switch. We exist without skin colour, without nationality, without religious bias.”
Sound familiar? Hackers may not be relevant these days – it’s more of an amusing artefact if anything – but the spirit of its influence, like it or not, absolutely is. In (mis)representing an entire sub-culture, could it be argued that it influenced a different culture entirely? Maybe, maybe not, but I know one thing: I hope Anonymous don’t take any tips from that Corinthians-quoting fuck-pump Cereal Killer bellend.