New on Video: Cyber-Silliness in Hackers

Man oh man, the Internet was scary to a lot of people back in the 1990s. Kids these days (kids these days!) who’ve grown up with it probably can’t grasp the fear that the mainstream, particularly the Baby Boomers, had of computers and the Internet and what many people either called cyberspace or the information superhighway. (Yep, “information superhighway” was a thing once.) Hollywood produced its share of the-internet-will-destroy-us-all! paranoia films at the time, and if we’re being honest, and it hasn’t stopped, considering recent scare films such as Disconnect and Men, Women, and Children. For that matter, virtual reality was briefly a thing back then as well, though the technology wasn’t ready yet.

But, holy cow, it’s been 20 gods-damned years since Iain Softley’s Hackers came out! Not only is it a reminder of my own mortality, it’s why Shout! Factory is releasing a 20th Anniversary Blu-ray on August 18.

The thing to remember about Hackers — a deeply silly film about a group of flamboyant teenage programmers led by Kate (Angelina Jolie) and Dade (Jonny Lee Miller) who get entangled with evil cyber-villain The Plague (Fisher Stevens) — is that even if the target audience had home computers, they most likely had very limited, dial-up internet access. The web was particularly nascent; I’d only just built my first site around the time the film came out, though I’d been on Usenet for a few years by then, and I was on BBSs a lot in the 1980s.

But the average moviegoer didn’t really know jack about computers or the internet in 1995 – for a lot of people, the word “online” was always preceded by the word “America” – and there were already plenty of scare stories in the media about hackers, hence this teaser trailer for the film in which the theater get “hacked.”

This cultural unfamiliarity meant Hackers was able to get as flashy and unrealistic as it wanted to be, and it isgloriously so. But it also accounts for why the film was a huge financial bomb, and the studio tried to rebrand it for video to make it seem more relatable to the average viewer. Here’s the original poster:

A nice blue tone (before The Matrix fucked things up with its ugly green palette), and the tagline, “Their Crime Is Curiosity,” posits the title characters as the heroes. Since that dog clearly didn’t hunt, they changed things around for the video art:

Oooh, now it’s red, signifying danger! Also, there’s a spooky pirate skull complete with a keyboard for a mouth and a floppy disc for an eyepatch (!), and a new tagline that draws you into the action: “You Thought Your Secrets Were Safe. You Were Wrong.” Omigosh, my secrets? Uh-oh!

Shout! Factory can be pretty hit-or-miss with their bonus features, and an “anniversary edition” by any company is never a guarantee that there’ll be any interested extras, but this disc actually has a good hour’s worth of new interviews. Hacker icons Nicholas Jarecki and Emmanuel Goldstein, who both consulted on the film at the time, are on hand to praise it now — Jarecki compares it to the Max Headroom series, while Goldstein says it foretells hacktivism, Anonymous, and the like — and there’s some really fascinating information about how the special effects were done. Much like Tron, a film which also tried to literalize cyberspace, there’s far less CGI and a lot more traditional effects work than one might expect, which is why it still looks good today. And you’d be surprised how much work went into the shot of Fisher Stevens skateboarding into the computer room at the beginning of this clip; it looks for all the world like a single-shot, in-camera take, but was actually much more complicated.

Unfortunately, for a film whose characters expose a sort of utopian vision (“We exist without nationality, skin color, or religious bias,” goes the manifesto), it has a pretty lousy take on gender. I know, it’s hard to believe: a counterculture that’s male-dominated and ultimately sexist? Strange but true! Not only is Angelina Jolie’s character the only female hacker in the core group, but a plot point that motivates much of the action, and is even such a funny funny joke that it makes it into the official trailer, involves a contest between Miller and Jolie’s characters in which if Miller whens, the cyber-tomboy Jolie will have to wear a dress on a date, and if she wins, he’ll have to wear a dress. Because gender humiliation via cross-dressing is hilarious!

And it ends there. During a campaign of harassment against a Secret Service agent (Wendell Pierce, Bunk from The Wire!), in addition to canceling his credit cards and setting his payroll status to Deceased, they put up a personal ad with his work number on a “Future Sex” board: “Disappointed white male, cross-dresser looking for discreet friend ‘to bring dreams to reality.’ Leather, lace, and water sports. Transvestites welcome.” Even more hilarious! Also, ugh.

Anyhow, the new Shout! Factory release engages in a skosh of hyperbole, referring to Hackers as becoming “an underground hit instantly, inspiring music and fashion for the brand-new Internet culture, and has been even hailed as prophetic in its use of computers and hacking.” Which, no, not really, but it did give us the phrase “Hack the Planet!”


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