The Incredible Hack: Five of the worst on-screen hacking scenes
It seems like every film and TV show these days has some reference to hacking. After all, computers are a ubiquitous part of modern life. Some of us work all day on a computer then go home and play games on one, watch TV on one, have one strapped to our wrist, and also have one in our pocket that we use for communicating. So it follows that computers and, by association, hacking would be reflected in a good chunk of our on-screen entertainment. However, the problem isn’t in how much hacking is being shown on screen but in the quality of the writing and the lack of basic research (or even Googling for crying out loud!) done before this stuff gets filmed.
Sometimes hacking is a major part of the story but a lot of the time it’s used in the narrative as an easy way out, a crutch to support shoddy writing. Magic and time travel are also used in this way but the main difference between these and hacking is that over time hacking has entered the lives of regular people. You can’t get away with using it as this mysterious smoke and mirrors solution anymore. Every day there’s another breaking news story about a breach at a large corporation or some top secret government data being leaked to the press. People are more aware of what is and isn’t possible now and our technological literacy is improving all the time. Gone are the days when you could impress the audience by uploading 80 gigabytes of data into Keanu Reeves’ melon* because most people now know they can fit more than that onto their phone!
Now I don’t pretend to be an expert — the closest I get to hacking is discovering a new keyboard shortcut in Word — but I have actually used a computer which, by looking at some of these hacking scenes, is more than can be said of the people that produced them.
Some of the scenes in this list are so ridiculous that they actually made me wonder if they were in fact done as a joke…but more on that later.
So without further ado, let’s take a look at five of the worst offenders:
5 — The Core (2003)
In at number five is Rat and his phreaking demo from the sci-fi disaster movie The Core. In a movie where a group of scientists drill to the center of the Earth to set off some nukes in order to start the planet’s core spinning again before the world tears itself apart, it says a lot when the most unbelievable plot point involves someone hacking a cell phone.
When our hero visits an über hacker named Rat to ask for help, the rodent-monikered computer whiz proves his worth by folding a chewing gum wrapper into a magical hacker-like shape and uses it to whistle into the protagonist’s cell phone. The result? Free long-distance calls for life. Obviously the scriptwriters were buddies with the cops that believed Kevin Mitnick was capable of starting World War 3 by whistling into a pay phone.
4 — Independence Day (1996)
Even if you know nothing about computers you would still be left scratching your head when Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) uploads a virus from his 1995 Apple Mac PowerBook to an alien mothership, disabling their shields and giving us humans a chance to blow those dirty aliens back to where they came from (serves them right for not having a decent firewall).
After the initial alien-killing high wears off, it’s not long before that “hang on a second” feeling starts to creep in. How are these systems even compatible? How did Levinson manage to wirelessly upload the virus in pre-Wi-Fi 1996? One thing’s for sure, it’s not just here on Earth that Mac users mistakenly believe they’re impervious to malware.
I feel a little bad including Independence Day on the list as I kinda like it, plus a deleted scene included on the DVD makes the virus scene more believable…kind of. A whole seven minutes of exposition was cut, which told us how Levinson deciphered the alien language and was able to make it compatible using the crashed Roswell ship. Also the huge wad of cash Apple handed over for product placement might also help explain things.
What doesn’t help explain things is writer and producer Dean Devlin’s Reddit AMA in which he tried to explain how the virus worked: “As any beginning programmer can tell you, binary code is a series of ones and zeroes. What Goldblum’s character did was turn the ones into zeroes and the zeroes into ones, effectively reversing the code that was sent.” It all makes total sense now, thanks Dean!
3 — CSI: NY (2004–2013)
This show is so bad it gets two notable scenes included.
First up: Mac Taylor (Gary Sinise) and cohorts are looking at an online chat involving a murderer, when one genius cop realizes “this is in real time!” another spouts the immortal words, “I’ll create a GUI interface using Visual Basic, see if I can track an IP address.”
First of all, let’s get the semantics out of the way. The cop actually just said “I’ll create a graphical user interface interface,” but maybe I’m just being pedantic. The real issue with this scene is why the hell would you want to create a GUI to track an IP address? Don’t most software already have one of these? And simply Googling “IP lookup” will provide you with a myriad ways to track an IP address, for free, and you don’t even have to create a GUI or learn Visual Basic.
Round 2: Mac and his buddies are questioning a suspect in the online virtual world Second Life. When Mac starts asking the guy — I say guy but he’s actually a blue fox — questions, he jumps on a jet-powered hoverboard and flees. Mac then dons a jetpack and gives chase, all the while controlling his avatar using what looks like a number pad. Now, I’ve never actually played Second Life but I’m pretty sure if you wanted to get away from someone it’d be a lot easier to just log out.
2 — Arrow (2012-present)
This one’s a classic. Computer expert Felicity Smoak is in the middle of a hack-off with a bad guy when he somehow starts to send a power surge through the computer, causing sparks to fly out of every electronic device in the room. Felicity uses her hacking super powers and quickly sends the baddie an “executable” which fires the power surge right back at him, causing the poor guy to be blown clear across the room. Even Superman can’t do that. Making a computer self-destruct like that is so far-fetched…or is it?
1 — NCIS (2003-present)
There are so many bad computer/hacking scenes on TV and in movies that it was difficult to boil them down to just five, but the number one spot was always going to go to everyone’s favorite naval cop show NCIS.
The show’s digital forensics specialist/resident goth Abby announces that the NCIS network is being hacked as she frantically tries to mitigate the situation by typing furiously fast and really loud on her keyboard (why do Hollywood hackers never use a mouse?). This tactic doesn’t seem to be working so another agent offers to help out. After all, what’s better than one person typing really fast and loud? You guessed it, two people typing really fast and loud…on the same keyboard.
Again, I’m no hacking expert but I have used a keyboard and I’m pretty sure that would create more than a few syntax errors. And just when you think this scene can’t possibly get any better, Agent Gibbs saves the day by unplugging the computer from the power outlet.
It’s all a big joke…hopefully
I know that portraying hacking on screen is tough; it’s difficult to make what’s usually a screen full of text visually interesting. But it’s not impossible to make hacking work on TV or film — just look at Mr. Robot as a perfect example of this. The show is technically accurate but as writer/producer Kor Adana puts it, “we work hard to ensure that the stakes of the scene and the character motivations are clear even if you have no idea how the technology works.”
So knowing that it can be done in an interesting, dramatic, and technically accurate way, are all those ridiculous on-screen hacking scenes actually some kind of in-joke amongst the writers? Turns out that might actually be the case, if this post on Reddit by an anonymous screenwriter is to be believed: “We write those scenes to be inaccurate and ridiculous on purpose. I guess you could call it a competition of one-upping other shows […] Sometimes the exec producers and directors are in on it, and other times we just try to get bits and lines into scripts.”
*Johnny Mnemonic did not make this list as any film that has Dolph Lundgren chewing the scenery as a religious killer who spouts “Jesus time!” when he murders people is okay in my book. Plus it’s got a cyborg dolphin in it as well, which is always a good thing.