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Since hacking became a thing, Hollywood has wanted to make movies about it. The worst of these movies regard hacking as some sort of magic, such as 2008’s Eagle Eye, in which a supercomputer hacks into a power line and somehow makes it physically fall on someone. Hackers was not only one of the first movies to tackle the subject, way back in 1995, but also one of the silliest, with director Iain Softley’s camera roving through the inside of a computer as if it were the Death Star trench and depicting a virus as a weird organism of keyboard characters that forms something resembling the tail of a peacock. Yet, 20 years later, Hackers endures in a way that Swordfish (Password Accepted) and Firewall don’t, because while Softley took visual license with hacking’s dullest aspect (people sitting at terminals and typing), he and screenwriter Rafael Moreu put effort into getting the culture correct.
As a child, Dade Murphy (Jonny Lee Miller), handle “Zero Cool”, hacks into a Wall Street computer and causes a massive crash, which earns his parents a hefty fine and gets him banned from computers until he turns 18. When that day arrives, he’s just moved to New York City with his mother Lauren (Alberta Watson), where he soothes the pain of losing a backyard with a new computer. Dade’s not a malicious guy, using his techno-wizardry to change the programming of a public access station from a conservative blowhard to episodes of “The Outer Limits”, but in doing so he stumbles upon a group of local hackers, including Phreak (Renoly Santiago), Cereal Killer (Matthew Lillard), Nikon (Laurence Mason), Joey (Jesse Bradford), most importantly, Kate “Acid Burn” Lilly (Angelina Jolie). Dade, now “Crash Override”, butts heads with Kate, but when naive Joey copies a garbage file linking aging Hacker “The Plague” (Fisher Stevens) and his lover Margo (Lorraine Bracco) to corporate crime, they find themselves hunted by the FBI for an oil terrorism crime they didn’t commit.
Softley, who worked in music videos and had just come off his debut Backbeat, turns out to be an inspired choice to direct. Right from the beginning, as Orbital’s “Halcyon On and On” plays over a circuit board designed to mimic the cityscape Dade is watching outside an airplane window, the film’s hip, youthful energy is infections. Even as seen 20 years after the fact, the propulsive soundtrack helps cultivate a trance-like state that mimics the groove that Dade and Kate fall into when exploring the inside of a corporate computer. The actual hacking may look silly, but Softley alternates between actual Mac interfaces and his more stylized visuals, asking the viewer to suspend their disbelief for the sake of artistic license. More importantly, the film captures a spirit to its characters that far outweighs the authenticity of the software the characters would’ve used — software that would just be dated in 2015. It’s not just relegated to the hacking, either; at every moment Softley looks for ways to make static scenes interesting. When the characters engage in a hacking war, they do so on top of the Empire State Building. When they hook up to pay phones, the glass stalls in front of the backdrop of Grand Central Station going the other way.
Softley has also assembled a great cast of talented young actors for his film which imbue it with a wide range of fun and interesting personalities. Obviously, the future superstar here is Angelina Jolie, who already has the attitude that take her to the top of the A-list, and both Jonny Lee Miller and Matthew Lillard have gone on to have their own memorable starring roles, but even the lesser known members of the cast are funny and memorable (especially Santiago and Mason), not to mention surprisingly diverse for a movie made in 1995. Of course, many remember that Miller and Jolie were briefly married in real-life, but even though their real romance collapsed, Softley taps into their chemistry for a surprisingly effective romance subplot that helps ground the movie and characters. The recognizable faces aren’t limited to the young cast either: “Wire” mainstay Wendell Pierce plays Richard Gill, the FBI agent on their tail, and Marc Anthony plays one of his subordinates.
Look at the list of Hollywood’s hacking movies, and in addition to sucking, you’ll see another trend emerge: most of them are serious, techno-thrillers about the dangers of the information that villainous people who know their way around a motherboard can pluck out of the air. Hackers sets itself apart by not only being a good movie, but being one of the few movies to paint hacking in a positive light, one that can help uncover corruption and greed. Not to idealize hackers (not all “doxxings” are created equal), but for every awful GamerGater with a petty grudge, there’s a story about Anonymous outing criminals or an Edward Snowden trying to tell us our government is spying on us. Hackers is a popcorn movie, and may not exactly be prescient in predicting “hacktivism,” but it does celebrate the youthful, rebellious energy of hacking in a way that hopes freedom of information can help rather than hurt.
Shout! brings the 20th Anniversary edition of Hackers home with a reversible sleeve that features new art by James Hance on one side, and the original theatrical poster art on the other. I seem to be in the minority, but I give Hance’s artwork the edge over the original poster, which I never liked. The single-disc release comes in a non-eco Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and there is no insert or slipcover.
The Video and Audio
Shout offers Hackers in a 1.85:1 1080p AVC transfer that is generally on par with the kind of releases that Kino Lorber has been putting out for their MGM licenses, which is to say dated but otherwise pretty strong. Many viewers have made a big deal out of the fact that the screencap comparisons to the DVD show a distinct shift in the color palette, but to my eyes the colors presented here appear essentially accurate (although, given how colorful and strange the movie looks, who can really tell). A grain structure is faint but noticeable, and detail is a strong improvement over MGM’s old DVD, although perhaps not as much of a jump as a new scan would’ve provided. Print damage is visible throughout, and there is still evidence of Shout’s less-than-perfect compression, although personally I don’t find it particularly intrusive.
The sound is a bit more controversial. Although the “original artwork” side of the packaging lists DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 as the option, and MGM’s original DVD featured a 5.1 mix, this Blu-ray only sports a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 option. To my ears, the audio presentation seems just fine, with Simon Boswell’s score and the library of great music included on the soundtrack pulsating and thumping with a nice resonance. There also seems to be some question online as to whether or not the film’s theatrical mix was a full 5.1. As with anything licensed from a major studio, I’d tend to believe that Shout! is stuck with what they’re given by the studio, but they also have a history of downmixing full 5.1 tracks for their 2.0 stereo options. For now, the rating for the audio will be based on what I heard on the disc, which is really what matters, but I will update this section should more information become available. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing
The one extra created for the 20th Anniversary Edition is a new documentary, “The Keyboard Cowboys: A Look Back at Hackers“ (1:03:55,HD), which is a decent but slightly dry look into both hacker culture and the making of the movie, featuring new interviews with director Iain Softley, hacking consultants Emmanuel Goldstein and Nicholas Jarecki (now the director of Arbitrage), cast members Matthew Lillard, Fisher Stevens, and Penn Jillette, costume designer Roger Burton, visual effects artist Peter Chiang, and film critic Mark Kermode. If there’s an overall criticism of the piece, it’s that despite being split up into sections, those sections aren’t very well defined — comments about the cast spread throughout multiple sections that are meant to be about hacking culture and the film’s legacy, and some of the material included feels a bit like dead weight. More participants from the cast (namely Jonny Lee Miller, Laurence Mason, and Renoly Santiago) might’ve helped beef up the memories here, as the documentary is largely supported by Goldstein’s praise for the film. That said, it’s better than the MGM DVD ever had, and the featurette taps on some interesting ways that the film spoke to real-life hackers that I hadn’t considered.
An original theatrical trailer is also included.