Hackers, 20 Years On: An Underrated Classic With an Important Message

Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of Iain Softley’s film Hackers . And earlier, Adam Clark Estes wrote a very fun article for Gizmodo where he tried to remember the plot of the film before sitting down to watch it again. And it is fun; in many ways the film can sound silly or childish. It was made in 1995, and is truly a product of its time, from fashion to tech lingo. But two decades since Softley’s movie came out, it’s worth revisiting its genius, because once you get past a cursory glance and into the movie, it’s quite smart and more relevant today than it was at its release.

Hackers is smarter than it had any right to be. It’s a film about young adults in a burgeoning subculture; by all appearances the crew behind it could have simply thrown together some hacking scenes, teen hijinks and a half-researched plot. But instead of being a fad cash-in, it’s a movie about youth activism, self-empowerment and doing the right thing in the face of corrupt authority. It’s subversive in its depictions of social structures, politically aware and in one of its biggest strengths, never gets preachy about it, letting the message be carried through the action.

The film follows Dade Murphy (Jonny Lee Miller), a hacker known as “Zero Cool” who crashed more than a thousand computers and hurt the Stock Market as a kid. He’s banned from using a Internet-connected computer until he’s 18, which the film quickly gets to as Dade and his mom move to New York City. He rechristens himself “Crash Override” (possibly the only hacker name more awesome than Zero Cool) and soon finds himself entangled with other hackers — the loony Cereal Killer, cocky Phreak, wise Lord Nikon and Dade’s enemy and crush, Kate “Acid Burn” Libby. The heroes are a racially and gender-mixed group from different backgrounds but a shared belief in altruism.

The bad guy (Fisher Stevens as “The Plague”) is a computer security officer for a major company with a strong Wall Street presence. And his plan? Steal from his company, create an environmental disaster in the oceans to distract authorities and blame it on young hackers. That last bit is easy, since the Secret Service is out to take down any and all hackers with violent SWAT raids. Head agent Gill (Wendell Pierce, aka “The Bunk” to The Wire fans) happily calls these hackers criminals while mugging for the camera. The conflict comes between socially minded teens dismissed as criminals and an actual rich white-collar criminal and his unintentionally corrupt government associate.

If that kind of political conflict isn’t set-up enough, the very first thing Dade does when he gets his computer rights back is an entirely political and awesome act. Disgusted by a far-right, racist nativist talk show host, he hacks into a TV station to pull it from the air and put The Outer Limits on screens. Is it a perfectly diverse movie? No, but its one of the better moments in Hollywood of reflecting real-world diversity, particularly for a city as racially and culturally mixed as New York.

And despite its focus on a counterculture, Hackers never leans toward stereotypes. In 1995, high-school-related social power structures were still going strong in pop culture. Jocks and preps were at the top, in school and in life, with “geeks” and “nerds” being outcasts who won’t succeed, even if they’re smart. In movies and TV, they dressed like losers and were awkward. But not in Hackers. If anything, Softley’s movie is prescient. At a time when the Internet was just entering public consciousness and computers weren’t a part of everyday life, the film imagines tech-savvy people as cool, capable and the future. Yes, the leads are good looking Hollywood stars, but that’s still something of a subversion considering how diverse today’s tech users are. No hacker character is portrayed as some sort of cliché weirdo, shut-in, or loser. The Matrix would take that route in a different way a few years later, but play it for an action story rather than a real-world commentary.

Along with avoiding stereotypes, Softley and co. avoid presenting the subculture as a blanket movement. The heroes are individuals. Kate’s upper-crust home life is a far cry from Cereal Killer’s hippie household, and they all have their own interests. They aren’t anarchist-minded rebels, they’re well-read, philosophically minded teens. Dade and his mom have a great friendly banter, and the hackers as a whole are interested in fighting corruption, not wrecking the system. Look at today’s world, coding skills are becoming essential across the job market and the computer and tech industries are economic giants. The fact that the heroes are intelligent isn’t a sign of weirdness, but a strength. Kate’s dead set to go to MIT, for instance.

Even the love story aspect of the film is a subversion. Dade and Kate (or Crash and Burn, as they get collectively named; this film is fun) start off as enemies due to a misunderstanding, despite Dade’s instant crush. Even when they get to know each other through shared friends, they’re still bickering because neither wants to let their guard down. Crash thinks playing aloof will help him find love, but Burn gets enough of that from her boyfriend, a jock who is repeatedly dismissive of her interest in computers. When Crash and Burn finally grow close, it’s not through some falling in love montage or instant realization, it’s through shared experiences, a developed friendship and finally getting over their pride. In Before Sunrise, another 1995 film, director Richard Linklater explored that same idea from a totally different stylistic approach, and both films offer a nice alternative to the hasty Hollywood romance story. Plus, Kate turns out to be the most talented hacker of the bunch, never once being made into a damsel in distress or faux badass.

Hackers is a film where a diverse group of youth team up and work to stop a corrupt white collar crime with environmental consequences. It is the kind of film that couldn’t be made today. Hollywood is too cautious, too demographics-focused to take a risk on a film that says young adults can defeat the establishment. Well, at least not a film with that plot that isn’t set in a dystopian world based on a popular book series. The movie industry is having enough trouble incorporating social media and bad teen tech slang into productions, too often making it feel forced or awkward. Now, computer skills and hacking are just launching points for thriller films involving gunfights and lone outcasts who can work to stop some rogue criminal. Studios aren’t interested in something as smart and focused as Hackers.

And that’s a shame, because Hackers resonates more with the present world than the one it was released to 20 years ago. Computers and technology are widespread and being used by increasingly young kids each year. Silicon Valley generates billions of dollars creating apps of increasingly niche uses. And in place of SWAT raids on hackers, there is the NSA collecting bulk data on American citizens in programs that are being challenged on their constitutionality. Edward Snowden’s revelations paint a picture of invasive programs combined with human ineptitude or apathy. Instead of Agent Gill’s narcissism and arrogance, some NSA employees are spying on ex-partners and passing around nude photos they intercepted from data networks. That’s not even getting into man-made environmental disasters and computer-facilitated identity-theft cases out there. At the same time, discussion and criticism of young adults and kids skews toward technology use and dismissing any youth activism. The empowerment message of Hackers matters now more than ever.

At times, Hackers can look silly. But really, it’s an important and clever movie with a message often ignored in the 21st century. On its 20th anniversary, it’s worth revisiting the film for that message. Once you get past the very 1995-era fashion, there’s a smart movie that goes against the norm. Watch it for the entertaining story and witty dialogue, the political undertones and for the excellent and epic electronic soundtrack. And remember the immortal words of hacker TV stars Razor and Blade:

Hack the planet.