Friday, November 16, 2012

‘Hackers’ (1995) directed by Iain Softley, 15th November 2012

They commit LOADS of crimes other than curiosity!  Angelina Jolie shoots a flare gun at someone! 
“…angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” – Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ as quoted by Dade Murphy in ‘Hackers’
‘Hackers’ is not a movie with a great reputation.  Nowadays it functions mainly as a punchline, an embarrassing relic that demonstrates just how much Hollywood misunderstood the internet in the 90s.  It's characters breathlessly gasp about how excited they are by 28.8 baud modems, or that “RISC architecture is going to change everything”.  17 years on from its release it seems impossibly archaic, and in terms of computing power, practically stone age.  But while it may be ridiculous in many, many ways, I think it’s more forward thinking than its given credit for.

I went to see it at ‘The Church of London’,  a creative agency in Shoreditch which regularly hosts events as well as publishing the magazine ‘Little White Lies’.  If their other screenings are anything like what they put on last nigh I’m going to be heading there as often as they have screenings.  They’d done up their downstairs bar area in retro cyberpunk style.  The tables were swaddled in bin bags, a sickly green light filled the room and a constantly scrolling green and black terminal readout was projected on the wall.  The soundtrack? ‘Music for the Jilted Generation’ by the Prodigy.  Perfect.

Our heroes.  I think they look pretty cool!  You may disagree.
‘Hackers’ tells the story of a group of computer hackers, achingly fashionable and attractive teenage outsiders who seem to rollerblade everywhere.  They’re individuals who co-opt computer systems to work for their benefit; hacking television stations to allow them to change programmes at will or breaking into the school network to change which class they’re taking at school.  They’re repeatedly defined as living in a more enlightened world than everyone else, of being the ones "with their eyes open", as opposed to the general public who are at one point disparagingly referred to as “cattle”. 

Our lead, Dade Murphy (Jonny Lee Miller) is a former child hacking prodigy who crashed “1507 systems” in 1988, including Wall Street.  He was arrested, his family fined $45,000 and banned from using computer technology or touch tone phones until his 18th birthday.  The film begins with him moving with his mother to New York, a development he seems bizarrely unhappy about.  If you’re a bleeding edge cyberpunk hacker why on earth wouldn’t he want to be in New York?  On arriving at his new school he becomes involved with a clique of cool, punky outsiders with hacker handles like ‘Acid Burn’, ‘Lord Nikon’, ‘Phantom Phreak’ and ‘Cereal Killer’.  They go on to become entangled in a corporate fraud scheme that involves viruses being unleashed onto oil tankers.  Meanwhile, a romantic entanglement develops between Dade and Kate Libby (Angelina Jolie).  The tanker plot is hardly something to write home about, but the relationship between Dade and Kate is fun to watch develop, mainly because we're watching two great actors enjoying some chemistry at the beginning of their careers.

These people rollerblade a lot, even when they're in nightclubs.
I’m of the opinion that in retrospect ‘Hackers’ was a lot more prescient than most people realise.  The way the film depicts computer hacking is of course, utterly ridiculous.  Our impeccably turned out leads sit, their faces Buddha-like in front of their laptops, data being projected onto their faces from the screen as they swoop around a CG city accessing hidden data files.  When we see the crucial data on which the plot turns, it looks like a purple floating cloud with equations and DNA helixes spinning around inside it.  It’s a laughably weird way to show a process that is generally rather boring but at least this silliness is fairly visually interesting.

What the film gets right is the notion of self empowerment through digital means.  The process of ‘hacking’ in ‘Hackers’ is literally gaining a measure of control over the systems which control the character's lives.  In the early 2000s, before the rise of social networking and developed online communities the idea of mass online co-operation to achieve political or social change seemed like a pipe dream, a vision of the future that never came to pass.  Before the mid-2000s explosion of user-generated content, the internet seemed to be evolving into a traditional top down media delivery platform.  The fabled ‘digital wild west’ of the 90s was steadily vanishing in favour of a rigid corporatism.  At the time, this made the freedom that ‘Hackers’ espoused just another failed utopian dream.  Who could imagine internet users coming together en masse to attack enormous systems with the intent of effecting real political and social change? So ‘Hackers’ became the butt of jokes, mocked for its naivety.  Then something happened which no-one expected: it came true. 

 I am talking about the rise of ‘Anonymous’.  Anonymous is a fascinating organisation, in that in many regards it is not an organisation at all.  It’s an amorphous online identity that anyone can adopt for their own ends.  There are no leaders per se, no group hierarchy or centralised location that a person opposed them can target.  In many respects Anonymous is utterly terrifying, a kind of hive consciousness that is effectively unstoppable and accountable to no-one.  You can arrest individual members, but like the Hydra, for every head you chop off a new one grows back.  As many have found out, fighting Anonymous is like fighting quicksand, the harder you struggle against it, the deeper you get sucked in.

At the climax of ‘Hackers’ people around the world come together to take down a corporate system, unleashing “their best viruses” which have names like ‘cookie monster’.  It’s a pretty silly scene and the audience quite rightly laughed at it last night, but underneath the camp is a remarkably accurate prediction of the future.  In the film we see tweed suited men sitting in front of Tower Bridge, Russian gangsters and Japanese cyberpunks all hunched in front of their laptops working as one to bring down a server.  The message is that pre digital notions of geography are going to be rendered obsolete. Concepts like nationality, race, religion and gender are inevitably going fall by the wayside as social groupings, to be replaced by ‘purer’ ideological concerns.  Or, as the film puts it “hack the planet!”

Real life computer hackers may not look quite like this.
If you’re computer literate, you’ll have recognised this scene as a dramatised Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attack.  In December 2010, the top news story was the gradual release of the Wikileaks diplomatic cables.  Wikileaks is dependant on donations to keep going, and was therefore reliant on companies like Visa and Mastercard to process payments to them.  Under political pressure to stop Wikileaks, these companies and others stopped all financial transactions and froze Wikileaks accounts.  Anonymous responded with ‘Operation Avenge Assange’.  Using a program known as the ‘Low Orbit Ion Cannon’, individuals identifying as Anonymous around the world were successful in bringing down these websites using enormous DDOS attacks, bringing the servers to their knees.  For a movie that is generally considered insultingly unrealistic, ‘Hackers’ prediction of the rise of groups like Anonymous and how they’d function is dead on.

For all that it gets right, there are a number of things the film feels like its gotten dead wrong  Prime among these is the concept that these hackers exist in a more enlightened state than ‘normal’ people.  This division is best illustrated by the way the film treats the character of Agent Dick Gill (Wendell Pierce). 

Agent Dick McGill... waitaminute... is that... it is! It's Bunk from the Wire!  He wouldn't take any shit from punk ass Hackers.  
Agent Gill is the film’s example of someone who isn’t plugged in, who doesn’t get it.  This might not be such a weird idea for a character, except we’re told he’s the head of the CIA’s cybercrime division. Even in the mid 90s, you’d expect him to at least know what a hard drive is.  He’s an antagonist, but not a malicious one, being manipulated using his ignorance of technology.  In one of the film’s more enjoyable sequences two hackers compete to see how much they can ruin his life.  They destroy his credit rating, sign him up for bizarrely kinky personal ads, give him a huge number of traffic violations and finally alter his records to declare him dead.  It’s an example of one world preying on another, attacking someone in a way that they can’t possibly understand, the old vs the new.

This dichotomy is present in a lot of scenes, the divide between the digital haves and have nots.  In a way that prefigures ‘The Matrix’, computer hacking is shown as a zen-like martial art.  We see Kate meditating in the lotus position mentally preparing herself for digital combat. When our hacking prodigy Dade sits at a computer the world around him speeds up as he intently focuses, laserlike, on the code before him.  In ‘Hackers’ world, skill with a computer is an inherent trait, and it seems you’re either born 1337 or not (if you didn’t understand that sentence then you’re probably not born 1337).

7HE koole57 DOODz 1N 7OWN
But as time as proved this is a load of cobblers.  Being ‘good with a computer’ is no longer an arcane and mysterious skill that can elevate you above the masses.  Online technology isn’t some barely understood wizardry anymore, it’s in everyone’s pockets and in every home.  It’s telling that in 1995, the idea of remotely accessing a TV network and choosing what you want to watch on TV is the first example they use to demonstrate the awesome power of the hacker.  In 2012 even my grandparents are using iPlayer to pick what TV they want to watch.  Access to the digital world isn't something for the select few, it's for everyone.

I found myself wondering while watching the film what would have happened to the characters in the years following the film.  They seem perfectly placed to ride the first wave of internet entrepreneurship and become dotcom millionaires.  The outcasts in this film seamlessly morph into our modern day technocrats, the Shawn Fannings, Jeff Bezos and Sergey Brins of this world.  I guess if they wanted control over the system they achieved their goal.  

Oh my.
Make no mistake, 'Hackers' is a very long way from being a good film.  The plot doesn't make a huge deal of sense and frankly, the anti-corporate politics of the film seem a bit hypocritical considering the omnipresent Coca Cola product placement throughout.  Equally, it's not quite as bad as its reputation suggests.  It's got an undeniably kickin' soundtrack featuring  Underworld, Orbital, Leftfield and the Prodigy, two young actors focussed on giving a good debut performance and at least tries to tap into something that no-one else at the time was making films about, even if they misunderstand, misrepresent and shamelessly sex it up.

In ‘Hackers’ they directly quote ‘the Hacker’s Manifesto’:
"This is our world now... the world of the electron and the switch, the beauty of the baud. We make use of a service already existing without paying for what could be dirt-cheap if it wasn't run by profiteering gluttons, and you call us criminals. We explore... and you call us criminals. We seek after knowledge... and you call us criminals. We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias... and you call us criminals. You build atomic bombs, you wage wars, you murder, cheat, and lie to us and try to make us believe it's for our own good, yet we're the criminals. 
Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like. My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for. 
I am a hacker, and this is my manifesto. You may stop this individual, but you can't stop us all... after all, we're all alike." - The Hacker's Manifesto
That was written in 1986, a quarter of a century ago.  I think it, and 'Hackers' still stand up this day, maybe not as an accurate representation of the way things were or what they'd become, but as an illustration of the immense powers of online technology as a force for social change.

Thanks again to 'The Church of London' for the excellent night.

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