Since the title of the film is Hackers, not Garbage Men or Meter Maids, it should come as no great surprise that this is a story about high-tech pranksters who get their kicks by illegally entering corporate and governmental computer systems. Nor should it surprise you to learn that, this being a production aimed squarely at the MTV generation, as opposed to the VH-1 generation or Lawrence Welk aficionados, all of the hackers on view here are attractive and ferociously bright teenagers who are morally and intellectually superior to almost every adult in the cast.
In fact, there's hardly anything at all surprising in this flashy little time killer. The screenplay by newcomer Rafael Moreu is chock-a-block with state-of-the-art techno speak, but that's as close as the movie gets to innovation. In just about every other way, Hackers is merely a modestly clever reworking of a formula concept, pitting members of a hip young subculture against corrupt and/or oppressive grownups. The only difference here is, instead of racing hot rods or protesting a war or just staying up past curfew, the teens arm themselves with laptops and modems.
In the world according to Hackers, the young protagonists are relatively benign nuisances who aren't nearly as dangerous as federal agents and other authority figures would have the public believe. The real villain of the piece is a grown-up hacker with an appropriately intimidating "handle" -- The Plague (Fisher Stevens). The Plague obviously doesn't subscribe to the good hackers' code of conduct. Employed as a computer security agent, he's double-crossing his employer, a multinational corporation, by siphoning off money to a Swiss bank account.
When one of the good hackers accidentally obtains evidence of The Plague's scheme while surfing through the corporation's computer system, The Plague tries to frame the good hackers by making them appear to be ransom-demanding terrorists. Naturally, the good hackers fight back.
Call it a wet dream for adolescent techno-weenies, and you won't be far off the mark.
First among equals in the good hacker camp is Dade (Jonny Lee Miller), a teenage master hacker who, seven years earlier, gained national notoriety by single-handedly crashing 1,507 Wall Street computers. (The prologue sequence that dramatizes this is the funniest part of the movie.) Newly transferred to a Manhattan high school, he's initially intent on keeping a low profile. But he quickly falls in with a group of like-minded fellow students.
His new friends include hackers with such colorful computer aliases as Phantom Phreak (Renoly Santiago) and Cereal Killer (Matthew Lillard). Joey (Jesse Bradford), a younger and less experienced hacker, doesn't have a code name yet. But he's the one who manages the high-tech break-in that attracts The Plague's attention.
Dade -- whose alias is Zero Cool -- develops a crush on Kate (Angelina Jolie), a beautiful and feisty hacker who's more than a match for any of the guys. (Better still, she has the coolest hacker handle: Acid Burn.) At first, Kate is cool to Dade's tentative advances. But a romance slowly blossoms as they and the other young hackers join forces with a cybernet underground to upset The Plague's master plan. If you can't guess what happens next, maybe Hackers will work for you as the thriller it was intended to be. If you can guess what happens next, well, there's all the neat imagery and loud music to divert you. Under the briskly efficient direction of Iain Softley, Hackers comes off as the cinematic equivalent of an ingeniously designed screen-saver: attractive, sporadically amusing, intellectually undemanding.
The special effects experts and the other members of the technical crew do their considerable best to give the various hacking sequences the look of warp-speed sci-fi fantasy. That goes a long way toward enlivening a story that's basically about nothing more than people staring at computer screens and typing on keyboards.
Rigorously adhering to conventions established more than a decade ago in John Badham's War Games, Softley's movie operates under the assumption that, for a dedicated hacker, breaking into any computer system is only slightly more difficult than installing Windows 95. Softley wisely keeps things moving faster than the speed of skepticism, so there's little time for the audience to seriously question the credibility of the frantic goings-on. Very much like The Net, Hackers skillfully plays on the paranoia of anyone who has ever viewed a blinking PC screen with stirrings of profound distrust.
To its credit, Hackers offers a nicely blended mix of attractive young newcomers and familiar character actors. Miller and Jolie are genuinely engaging as the romantic leads, even though they're repeatedly upstaged by Santiago and Lillard. Other co-stars include Lorraine Bracco as Stevens' paramour and partner in crime, and Wendell Pierce as a Secret Service agent who views the hackers as dangerous criminals. And Stevens is aptly flamboyant as the egomaniacal Plague, a skateboarding eccentric who seems more like an arrested adolescent than do his younger adversaries.
-- Joe Leydon
Directed by Iain Softley. With Jonny Lee Miller, Angelina Jolie and Fisher Stevens.
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