Why Hackers was the Most Important Film of the 90s
or “Why a Movie with 32% on RT Literally Changed My Life.”
“FYI man, alright, You could sit at home and do like absolutely nothing, and your name goes through like 17 computers a day. 1984? Yeah right man. That’s a typo.”
— Cereal Killer
It’s early 2001. Maybe 5 months before Cyberpunk became real. A hoodie clad 5th grade code-ninja has spent most of the day reading some contraband computer magazine during class. After school today, provided a good grade on a Science test, his Mom would bring him to Hollywood Video to rent a VHS. This particular VHS had been mentioned in various forums and zines as required watching. Hackers.
This was an important day in the life of this code-ninja. The science test grade wasn’t stellar, but Mom still took him to the rental place. She was cool like that. Similarly, 3 years later, another important phone call would be made by the same kid to the same Mom.
‘Mom, can you stop by the book store on the way home? I need a book for a report at school. It’s called Neuromancer, by William Gibson.’
But we aren’t there yet. Today, the kid goes home and puts the VHS into the little TV/VCR combo and proceeds to have the direction of his life changed inexorably.
I don’t have the exact metrics, but I’d say, conservatively estimated, I’ve watched Hackers more than 50 times. I know every line. That quote at the beginning of this article? That’s from memory. This movie is my Rocky Horror Picture Show. My Breakfast Club.
Most recently, I had a viewing party with #Geisekku, an LGBT infosec crew that specializes in postmodern trolling. We had, combined, all seen the film likely over 200 times, but never in quite this particular headspace. The tone of the film, the intangible spirit of the thing, struck a chord with everybody involved. More on that later.
This article is in fact a method for me to perhaps try to personally derive the deeper meaning of why this film is so important to myself and others.
The thing about it, right, is that it’s pretty much standard 90s movie fare, at least on the outside. The plot can be summed up as the following:
<spoilers> ‘The good guys stop the bad guys from doing the thing. They learn some stuff about themselves in the process.’</spoiler>
Regardless of the 32% rotten tomatoes rating, I believe, at least for me, this was the most important film of the last decade of the 20th century.
“The future is already here — It’s just not very evenly distributed” — (The) William Gibson
I think the importance of this film is that it unapologetically echos the above quote over and over again. Hackers is a sci-fi film that takes place not in the future, but in contemporary times. It’s both a prophecy and a celebration of the coming wave.
Surely the writers of this film couldn’t have predicted the world we live in in 2017, but for 1995, it’s an eerily similar vision. Insider cyber crime, Nerds being the ‘cool kids’, Groups like Anonymous, etc. I’d even argue that it’s partially responsible for some of these things (not the insider crime).
Some will argue that the movie misses the mark when it comes to reality: It’s nothing like what the scene was like in reality. Nobody wears spandex and a ripped Dead Kennedy’s t-shirt to B-Sides. I don’t disagree, but I don’t think that accuracy was ever the intention here. I believe the intention was to portray a hyper-stylized vision of what the subculture could have been. In doing this, it’s making the quote above. Cyberpunk isn’t coming in 50 years, it’s now.
Sure, the details were a little bit different, but it does get the spirit of the community mostly right. They even hired some 2600 guys as consultants, and even named one of the characters after Emmanuel Goldstein, the head editor of the fine publication. Hackers was a well deserved pat on the back to the computer underground. It says, perhaps, ‘The future is here, and it’s in part thanks to all of you’.
For every ‘P6 Chip (Triple the speed of a Pentium!)’, there’s a well crafted nod to Cyberpunk Culture. ‘The Gibson’ is a direct reference to William Gibson. The character Joey’s name likely refers to the term ‘Joeboy’, cyberpunk slang for a novice hacker. Quoting Alan Ginsberg's Howl. Red boxing. Rainbow Books. If anyone can score me a copy of The Dragon Book, I’d be appreciative. Even Razor and Blade’s cheesy TV show is a nod to DIY media like 2600 and others.
Even the soundtrack is like a Cyberpunk Greatest Hits record: Massive Attack, Underground, Orbital, Prodigy. Every single time I’ve been on an airplane, I’ve listened to Halcyon On and On. The soundtrack still holds up today. Seriously, go listen to it. It’s unironically one of the best movie soundtracks ever.
Hackers was possibly the first movie (maybe with the exception of Sneakers and Wargames) where the nerds were cool kids, something that media is desperately trying to still catch up on.
I’ve read reviews calling the characters unrelatable, but for geeks, the opposite is true. The scene where Acid Burn stops mid make-out-session to show off her sweet new laptop? Been there.
The motivations of the characters was overlooked or ignored by popcorn viewers because it was abstract and complex. There was no objective good or bad here, as stated by the villain on multiple occasions. There was just fun and not fun.
Borrowing a line from the podcast ‘How did this get made?’, I think the characters are in many ways like Graffiti Artists- Yes, breaking the law, but doing so for the pursuit of a higher goal- a truth higher than binary notions of good and evil- Spiritual Freedom. And lulz, I guess.
It’s no mistake that this ‘alternative’ morality is brought up again and again in the film. It established an ethical philosophy that both drives the main characters and the villain. They both want the same thing. ‘You’re not so different, you and I’.
However the opposite can be said. They have the same motivations, but the difference between the protagonists and the antagonists is greed. Joey, the novice hacker, is admonished for getting involved with finances. They have comparable skills to The Plague, but have not abused their powers to reap the rewards.
There is the red-boxing scene where they get free phone calls, but when it is referenced again, it is described as a ‘survival trait’. A street punk stealing phone calls is not the same, morally, as extortion.
After first seeing it in 2001, I desperately yearned to be a part of a cool scene that had characters like Cereal and Phreak, even if that meant I had to be Joey. I thought it was out there. It encouraged me to write more code, attend (and eventually organize) 2600 meetings, and (slightly more regrettably) spend my allowance on ‘cyberpunk’ clothes to make me look like Johnny Lee Miller.
Unfortunately Cereal and Phreak didn’t go to my Middle School, nor my High School. That didn’t stop me, however. I was emboldened with an obsessive need to live in that world, much like many my age had with Anime and Harry Potter.
Because of Hackers, I founded my first (terrible) hacker crew in middle school. Got suspended from Middle School for messing with the network. This transitioned into Ronin Penguin, a ‘nomad’ Linux User’s Group. I frequented computer geek hangouts. Spent the better part of my middle/highschool sweating away in storage-unit LAN centers, writing code and hacking on linux (mostly trying to get World of Warcraft to work on WINE).
Hackers was directly responsible for the founding of #Geisekku, and I am proud to say that I have finally found my crew. I’m still the Joey.
For myself and for many other millennials, this movie provided a template for a world that we desperately wanted to live in. Hack the planet.