Hackers is the sort of film that was dated the minute it began production. From the music, to the costumes, to the tech, Hackers functions as a film of 1995 even more than something like Clueless, which is also celebrating its twentieth anniversary. That said the film, which has become a cult favorite, is thoroughly entertaining. Much of that may have to do with it now being a cultural artifact of what the culture thought computer hacking could or might be, but entertaining is entertaining.
Jonny Lee Miller stars as Dade, who also goes by the hacker name of Zero Cool, and who starts the film being arrested for hacking at the age of eleven. Moving to New York with his mom, his ban from computers has finally been lifted, and of course he goes right back to hacking, coming in contact with the hacker “Acid Burn” online, and finds that he has competition. He also enrolls in school, where he quickly falls in with the hacker kids Joey (Jesse Bradford), Cereal (Matthew Lillard) and Phreak (Renoly Santiago), and quickly forms a love/hate relationship with Kate (Angelina Jolie) who is also a hacker. Joey is looking to prove himself and so he hacks into the corporation that the hacker known as The Plague (Fisher Stevens) works for, and downloads part of a program that’s stealing money from the company. To keep his job The Plague gets Joey arrested but is unable to retrieve the disc that Joey hid. And so he goes after Dade, knowing his past history. But going after hackers is a dangerous business, and so Dade joins forces with Kate to take down The Plague.
If you have fond memories of Orbital, Massive Attack, The Prodigy and Leftfield, this film is going to trigger some nostalgia, but if you don’t know those bands at all, you’ll probably spend a good chunk of the movie laughing at how the film thinks computers work. The mid-nineties were a peak period of Hollywood knowing about the internet but not really having a clue how it works, and there are other equally hilarious examples of how Hollywood thought computers worked. (It isn’t really until the last decade that movie computers function as real computers do; the eighties are also stuffed full of magic computing). For the most part the tech isn’t terrible, but to make it more cinematic, the interfacing is silly with ugly big fonts. Then again, trying to make coding visual is a nightmarish task, so it’s no surprise that it gets goofy.
What’s surprising is how the film manages to make itself as cinematic as possible while following computer nerds, and how it makes the romance between Kate and Dade engaging. It’s no surprise that Miller and Jolie got married after the film because they are great on screen together. Director Iain Softley was coming off the modest indie hit Backbeat, and though he never really found his way in Hollywood, he knows how to work with a young cast, and has some fun visual tricks up his sleeve. The film may be more entertaining now because it’s so silly, but it was silly in its time and now that it’s a period piece those pleasures are more bountiful.
Shout Factory has released a 20th Anniversary Edition that presents the film in widescreen (2.35:1) and in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, Films twenty years old tend to be well looked after, so it’s no surprise the transfer here is great. Extras are limited to a theatrical trailer, and a look back that features comments from Softley, actors Fisher Stevens, Matthew Lillard, and Penn Jillette, costume designer Roger Burton, visual effects artist Peter Chiang, hacking consultants Nicholas Jarecki and Emmanuel Goldstein and critic Mark Kermode. It runs 64 minutes and is fairly thorough, though one wishes that some of the key cast could have been involved, but it does give a sense that everyone involved really tried to intuit where hacking culture would go, and that some of the tech and ideas aren’t as absurd as they might appear on the outset.