On September 15, 1995, Hackers was released in the theaters to a relative thud, recovering less than half its production budget at the box office. But the tale of a group of high school hackers—with cool-sounding hacker handles like “Zero Cool” and “Acid Burn”—stumbling upon a grand corporate conspiracy found a second life on home video, becoming a cult classic two decades later.
Directed by Iain Softley—who’d previously made the Beatles dramatization Backbeat, and subsequently directed K-PAX and The Skeleton Key—the film is all sorts of dated. There’s heartthrob Jonny Lee Miller doing his best to put on a New Yorker accent, there’s some unknown punk named Angelina, there’s the nebulously famous Fisher Stevens. Matthew Lillard’s in it, and so is Marc Anthony. Everyone rollerblades or skateboards. It’s probably the most 90s movie of all time.
But despite its residence in an era of phone booths (that sometimes twirl) and modems that go “reeeeee-unnnhhhhhh!” it’s also prescient portrayal of the approaching promises and dangers of this internet thing.
I woke up at the crack of dawn to chat with Softley about the 20th anniversary of the movie.
MOTHERBOARD: How long has it been since you watched Hackers?
Iain Softley: I actually saw it about three weeks ago for the first time in 20 years. I was checking a print for a screening in London. It was fun. I mean, there were things that looked dated, that weren’t as strong as other bits, but the bits that were strong I was very pleased with.
Which ones in particular?
The visualization of the world, the sense of them being this counter-culture gang, the three-dimensional recreation of the world inside their heads. I suppose I expected that would stand up well, but the thing I was pleasantly surprised by was the story… it was almost as if they were a rock and roll band. I had just made Backbeat, and that was a countercultural moment that came into being 20 or 30 years before I made it. I was trying to anticipate what we were on the cusp of then, if you like, the new rock and roll.
That feeling resonated for me, especially when it came out. I’m 34 years old, this came out when I was 14. Hackers was such an important movie for teenagers during that time.
I had a niece that was 15 at the time, and she said people in her school would watch it over and over again because there wasn’t anything else for people that age. It was either children’s films, family films, or adult films. There wasn’t this sort of Twilight orHarry Potter or Hunger Games, films like that, for people in their early-to-mid teens as much as anybody else. That is perhaps why it’s got the longevity it does. And it was slightly aspirational. The teenagers needed to find an escape from the restrictions of homes and schools, another world they could live in, like the kids who’d listen to pirate radio stations and LPs in their bedrooms while their parents were downstairs.
It was also during a time when we didn’t know what the internet was going to be, so it had this dangerous punk aesthetic to it. When you were making it, did you project the internet to look how it does now?
My starting point was how do you make something that’s invisible—the movement of the data, the journey of electronic connections, electronic exploration, wandering through the labyrinth—how do you visualize that?
That was a big challenge, and one of the things that appealed to me. I saw the chance to let my hair down, really, and create something imaginative. And in the course of coming up with those ideas—which were inspired by a number of things, like some of the sequences in 2001, going through space on the way to Jupiter, or even the dark around the space station—we did a lot of research with people who were, at that time, trying to anticipate the possibilities, and they saw creating interfaces that were visual, that were easy to use. That made me realize we were on the right path, because people were already starting to move in that direction. [At the time] people criticized and said they thought it was way too far-fetched, there would never be anything other than black and white text on the screen.
Were there any other approaches to showing the inside of a computer you considered?
Right at the beginning I had the idea of when we were flying over New York to change it into a circuit board. We actually built a circuit board map based on that architectural landscape. I took a photograph and gave it to the model makers and they reproduced it, so there was a smooth transition when he’s arriving in New York and he sees it as this sort of potential playground.
Fisher Stevens uses 3D goggles in the movie. That was going to be the next big thing, and then it fizzled, and now it’s maybe back? Are there any technologies that you kept track of that were going to be the next big thing and didn’t?
I don’t think there were many. One of the things we tried to anticipate and illustrate was not so much the technology, but the way technology was fetishized, in the way people would fetishize their guitars. We had our characters have their laptops strapped with guitar straps, and they had stickers on them, the sort of stickers you’d put on a guitar, so they weren’t just grey lumps of technology. And it was a world in which they wanted to be able to communicate with each other, and that’s happened with chat rooms and Facebook and social media. I guess rollerblading [laughs]… that slipped into history pretty quickly.
It’s also dated a bit in the idea of just what the internet was going to be.
I could see these connections at the time between, if you like, the hippie culture and the idea of freedoms and pioneering, the idea that the internet was going to be a free frontier that was egalitarian and didn’t have the restrictions of the mainstream world. A lot of the early pioneers of technology that then developed into the Silicon Valley phenomenon, they came out of that spirit of Haight-Ashbury and San Francisco in the 70s.
I was reading that some of the early devices that would enable you to connect to long distance telephone calls and bypass certain exchanges were sold at Grateful Dead concerts. And that’s partly why there was a connection being made between the mind-expanding nature, the limitless possibilities, and the psychedelic movement of the 70s. It’s been transposed into what we call a cyberdelic culture—notice [in the movie] that we have that club “Cyberdelia.”
Looking back on Hackers, what would you change if you’d make it today?
Maybe more detail of the world inside of the company, and how the security officer, [The Plague, played by Fisher Stevens] was playing both sides, because I think that was quite prescient. The idea that the people going to be in charge of security systems had come from hacking communities. That’s come about, from what I gather. It was very easy potentially for crime to be committed because nobody understood that world.
Early internet has a freedom associated with it that’s now missing.
Everything has obviously been boxed up and sold. That’s just the fact of where we are. I don’t particularly want to make a value judgement about it. Increasingly, a lot of the free access is a teaser to hook you in and get you to subscribe. So, I think it hasn’t developed the way people maybe had hoped, but maybe that was never realistic and never likely.
In the past few years, hacker groups have continually made the news, be it the Ashley Madison hack or whatever Anonymous is doing. Did you expect that?
It was clear it was possible. I mean, there’s the competition where they target the Secret Service officer played by Wendell Pierce, and they’re trying to find ways to close down his online profile, making it more difficult for him to function in the world. I think people thought that was not really possible, that you could access people’s personal data like that, and basically take it over and control it. The people in the film weren’t doing anything for material gain. They were curious explorers charting new territory and looking around. But there was an acknowledgment that the extent of which we would increasingly live on the internet, and have our data stored, would inevitably leave people open to crimes of the sort that have taken place.
When you have the “Hack the Planet” sequence, there’s a hint of a new world community burgeoning.
We have become more global, and certainly younger people are making connections with people in different countries, and understanding about people in different countries. It’s becoming difficult for regimes around the world to exclude information about what’s really going on from populations. Attempts are made, but there are still always ways that information gets through because it’s universally accessible.