Hollywood and Hacking: Information wants to be free! Hack the planet!
May 17, 2020 12:11 PM   Subscribe

There had been movies about computer hacking before 1995, most famously in John Badham’s Cold War classic WarGames (YT trailer) (1983), where Matthew Broderick almost triggered World War III after hacking a supercomputer to “play a game” of intercontinental nuclear armageddon, but Iain Softley’s Hackers (YT trailer) is more interesting for being released at the brink of the Internet Age. It seems crazy now, but this movie was released barely a month after Windows 95 debuted (YT clip). 1995 doesn’t seem that long ago, but [25] years has been an ice age in technological terms. Surf on in for more links, critiques, music and actual hackers.

The technology partially realistic (Wired) and the hacks are a mix of ludicrous and close enough to factual (Medium). And then there's the (full) soundtrack!

But if Hackers doesn't scratch your computer wizardy itch, New Atlas has a three-part feature on the history of hacking as portrayed in films, including video clips, under the header of Hollywood and Hacking Schneier on Security posted links to the series, and the comments fill in a few gaps. There's also a section on hacking in Wikipedia's list of films about computers, and TV Tropes for Hollywood Hacking, which includes a much broader list of media.

And if you want see "vintage" hackers in person, Hackers '95 is a 90 minute part documentary, part spoof. Phon-E and R.F. Burns cover the hacker related goings on of 1995. SummerCon 95, Defcon 3, Operation Cyber Snare, Area 51, an interview with Erik Bloodaxe and more are covered. A distinct lack of CGI, romance, and techno soundtrack. "It's not fancy, but it's a start."
posted by filthy light thief (29 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Mr Robot is a television series that is nothing but a series of hacking incidents most of which are portrayed very realistically according to the hacking community. I've always had problems with hacking in most media, but some of them get it really right, which is nice.
posted by hippybear at 12:14 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]

Erp, I failed to link to the italicized source text above the fold, but it's this Medium review of Hackers.

Mr Robot is a television series that is nothing but a series of hacking incidents most of which are portrayed very realistically according to the hacking community.

It came out 20 years after Hackers, (and the same year that The Net [trailer] and Johnny Mnemonic [trailer]), when Mr. Robot was one of four new TV series about hacking, as reviewed by a security company, Cloudbric.

Going into the 4th and final season, Sam Esmail shared a lot about how much of himself there was in the series, which reminded me how much that show was the opposite of Hackers. Esmail said "A lot of the movies that came out of Hollywood, especially in the late '90s and even then in the 2000s, were very corny and had nothing to do with realistically what hacker subculture was all about."
posted by filthy light thief at 12:22 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]

Oh, I saw Hackers in the theater. I'm well aware of the time gap.
posted by hippybear at 12:30 PM on May 17 [2 favorites]

I'm not as concerned about hacking in films as I am about hacking as depicted in television, see NCIS. I understand that you have to demonstrate technical information being received to advance the plot but this scene breaks my brain.
posted by Fizz at 12:32 PM on May 17 [3 favorites]

because three hands on the keyboard are better than two during a data dump!
posted by hippybear at 12:35 PM on May 17

Metafilter: I've never seen code like this!
posted by Saxon Kane at 12:48 PM on May 17 [2 favorites]

Having interacted with hackers of my (the Hackers generation) generation, I think a lot of them are self consciously corny. And proud of it.
posted by wotsac at 12:49 PM on May 17 [3 favorites]

I haven't seen War Games in a looooooong time (I think my family may have watched it on a rented SelectaVision system) and as such barely remember it, but "the only winning move is not to play" is advice that continues to serve me well in life to this day.
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:06 PM on May 17 [4 favorites]

I'd post some snark about Swordfish, but I'm posting cross-eyed right now.
posted by k3ninho at 2:08 PM on May 17 [2 favorites]

For my money, Sneakers is still the best "hacker" movie.
posted by Sphinx at 2:09 PM on May 17 [30 favorites]

Was about to say Sneakers! Nice!
posted by Snowishberlin at 2:12 PM on May 17 [2 favorites]

Having interacted with hackers of my (the Hackers generation) generation, I think a lot of them are self consciously corny. And proud of it.

Yeah, I think Hackers *does* successfully capture *something* about the countercultural currents of the 90s, and even something specific about hacker culture. Not technically apt, but when I watch it I feel like I know some of the characters, even though most of the real life versions aren't quite so over the top.

And while the technical portrayal is also a wild Hollywood fantasy version, I can squint and see hints of real technical concepts behind the fun house mirror big screen spectacle.

Still a lot of fun for me to watch, at any rate, and holds up better than The Net.

Sneakers *is* an unusually good hacker movie, though. Also one of the few movies I can think of to feature the word "homomorphism" and generally have math talk that sounds like mathematicians.
posted by wildblueyonder at 3:02 PM on May 17 [4 favorites]

One of the most visually effective scenes is in the final chase/hacking attack, the baddies clue the police in to the hackers location and as they rush through a public space they find a wall of pay phones with two headsets taped together. The best got'em, oh no they're smarter than us scenes ever.

And it could've been possible at the modem level speeds at the time. Then my brain start running down the sequence of connection and various escape protocols and would the input phone need to be connected prior to the output phone ringing and needing to be answered, tapped after the connection, would that break the modem handshake(s).

Now in this day and age what one would do is...cough... starbucks... never mind, good thing I'm too lazy to actually be a hacker...
posted by sammyo at 3:06 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]

I don't know if perhaps the best hacker film is 1999's Office Space, in which David Herman slices the salami, or 1983's Superman III, in which Richard Pryor sliced the salami.
posted by mikelieman at 3:09 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]

When someone hears I work with computers, to this day, I still occasionally get the question, "Can you hack?"

That's kinda like saying, "You work in construction. So you can break into houses, right?"
posted by panama joe at 3:40 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]

And to think that it all started in 1946 with a college model railroad layout. Early days? try Steven Levy's 1984 history ... popular enough to get a 25th anniversary edition.

But that 1995 movie ... fun, hip, not universally stupid. Quoteable quotes? Yes. Matthew Lillard and that bag of manuals? solid homework, man. Wanna ride? get oucher Jargon file.
posted by Twang at 3:51 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]

posted by ovvl at 3:53 PM on May 17

hippybear: Oh, I saw Hackers in the theater. I'm well aware of the time gap.

I was not commenting to identify how time might improve the media, but because I'm slightly obsessed (again) with The Happy Mutant Handbook (link to my own fanblog ;) ), book from 1995 that is half focused on technology of the day, and half on other (often kitschy) topics. Yesterday, I wrote up a bit about 10 types of early Net users, and I saw that the Techno Shaman's quote is "I'll never forgive Steven Levy for editing me out of Hackers".
posted by filthy light thief at 4:14 PM on May 17 [3 favorites]

oooh... my chance to share my favorite 90s tech commercials

MCI (starting a wee Anna Pacquin)...
#1 - the possibilities are endless
#2 - a passing lane
#3 - a wire the size of a human hair
#4 - the will be no more there (my favorite because who doesn't love echoes)
#5 - empowering technology
#6 - every piece of knowledge in the universe

AT&T's You Will ads (surprisingly prescient for a company that kind of missed the boat)
(also, maybe first in with Solsbury Hill before the movie trailer overuse?)
posted by kokaku at 4:53 PM on May 17 [4 favorites]

Awkward long hair, terrible goatee, smug face, electric skateboard: I find the antagonist of Hackers highly believable. Clearly an aggrieved incel LARPer.
posted by grumpybear69 at 5:56 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]

My girlfriend at the time had to drag me to see The Matrix because I didn't want to see yet another computer hacker movie.
posted by octothorpe at 6:17 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]

I bet the conversation on exiting the theater wasn't what you thought it would be going in to the movie.
posted by hippybear at 6:24 PM on May 17

I didn't quite have to be dragged to see The Matrix, but God! I had my reservations. Like they say Unfortunately, no one can be told what The Matrix is. You'll have to see it for yourself.
posted by wotsac at 6:36 PM on May 17

Hackers is the only film I watch regularly that gets better every single time I see it. There's just so much crammed in there! I mean, fuck, go watch that one little dumb concert sequence where they fail to meet up with Razor and Blade (who are their own whole thing and in this era of microniche sequels and prequels it is indefensible that we have not been blessed with three seasons of Razor and Blade by now). Everyone is dressed for a different party than the one they're at. There's someone running around with a disco ball on their head. Why? How did this party even happen? How did they find it? It doesn't matter! And the whole movie is like that. There are so many different forms of hacker culture; they decided to make a film about the one that was fun.
posted by phooky at 8:06 PM on May 17 [5 favorites]

(and don't get me started on Mr. Robot, which is a Good Show and all but is also just about bummer hacks from start to finish.)
posted by phooky at 8:07 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]

For a movie that was patently ridiculous on release it's incredible that Hackers has aged as well as it has.
posted by Merus at 11:05 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]

surprised nobody has chimed in yet on how good the soundtrack is... that may have opened the doors to that whole genre of music for me
posted by kokaku at 1:05 AM on May 18 [1 favorite]

Lots of computer geeks went apeshit over The Matrix Reloaded because they used nmap in it.
“A real life hacker tool in a Hollywood movie WTF”
posted by farlukar at 10:57 AM on May 18

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