New To Blu: Hackers

blu ray
Hackers finally comes home in a proper Shout Factory 20th anniversary blu-ray release.

"I wear my sunglasses at night...
so I I can. 
This Tuesday, Shout! Factory gives their special edition treatment to the 1995 cyberpunk-ish teen thriller Hackers, in honor of the film's twentieth anniversary. Not only its blu-ray debut, but also the first time the film has gotten any special features at all, Shout!'s release makes the case for why Hackers deserves to be embraced as a cult classic. In a way, this is a movie that has only gotten better with time: it is so firmly entrenched in the mid-1990s (in every way imaginable) that it dated itself fairly quickly, but it has now transcended simply being dated and has entered the realm of retro-cool camp spectacle. Two decades later, Hackers is easily the most entertaining it has ever been – in ways both intentional and unintentional – and is ready for rediscovery.

This is the quintessential guilty-pleasure movie: it isn't really “good,” but it is massively entertaining and purely enjoyable, both for the things director Iain Softley got right, and for his inspired missteps. It's the cinematic equivalent of downing a Jolt Cola and playing some F-Zero or Mega Man X with the chip tunes turned up really loud: a glorious time-capsule of a decade when the image of “high-tech” was cool and edgy, but in hindsight also quite na├»ve. A time when a generation raised on William Gibson and Blade Runner thought that computers and virtual reality would make our cyberpunk dreams come true before Y2K hit, not knowing that all this cool technology would be as commonplace and taken for granted as indoor plumbing in just a few years. Essentially a high-tech spin on the classic “misunderstood teenagers fight the corrupt system that doesn't understand them” story, Hackers takes the cultural hopes and anxieties everyone had about computers in the '90s and runs with them like crazy, without letting reality get in the way of its fun.

"This lighting you look even more like
Ozzy. Evil, man, evil.
Half of the camp appeal of the film is the way in which it is sci-fi masquerading as reality. 1995 was a time when everyone had enough casual computer knowledge for a film like this to have mainstream appeal, but limited enough knowledge that Rafael Moreu's script could basically make up whatever fictional stuff it wanted and no one would ever know, just as long as the technobabble sounded real. The script fully exploits the fact that the average viewer would have no clue what the characters were talking about (actual dialogue exchange from the movie: Cop 1 - “We found an uncorrupted hard drive.” Cop 2 - “In English, please?”). Computers in the world of Hackers often blatantly do not work the way real computers do, with their screens showing wildly over-the-top CGI cyberscapes, and with the internet being depicted as a literal realm reminiscent of The Circuits of Time in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. But to be fair, this was a better dramatic decision than just showing Windows 95 screens the whole time, and while it gives the film an inescapable air of silliness, that's all part of its charm. As our cultural awareness of how computers actually work has increased, so has Hackers' camp appeal: watching it with a bunch of programmers or IT professionals is a great time.

The other half of its camp appeal is how over-the-top 1990s everything is; this may in fact be the most '90s movie of that decade. Everyone dresses in the loudest counterculture fashions, everyone travels by skateboard or rollerblade, and the film is edited in rapid-fire vintage-MTV style, with random flashes of neon lights cut to the pounding beat of music by The Prodigy, Orbital, and Massive Attack. There's a '90s-kid-dream-come-true arcade/indoor skate park where characters settle disputes on a Wipeout machine, and the main character has a poster for the anime Wicked City on the wall of his room. Another character enthusiastically describes them as “the Nintendo generation;” and being part of the Nintendo generation myself, the trip back in time is richly nostalgic, all the more so because it is so overstated.

Speaking of overstated, there's our cast of characters: poster-children for high-tech teen angst who relish their roles as rebels with a righteous cause, and who chew just the right amount of scenery while bringing some great personality to the parts. This is where the camp elements of the film are clearly not accidental: Softley and his cast know exactly the tone to take with these characters and their journey, and bring genuine enthusiasm and a great sense of humor to the tale of kids taking on The Man. Jonny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie take themselves just seriously enough as our cool and moody hacker heroes, while their motley crew including Laurence Mason (Tin Tin from The Crow) and Matthew Lillard (in possibly his most over-the-top role of all) provide personality and comic relief. As the villain, Fisher Stevens gives an oddly stilted performance that seems to suggest a huge nerd trying to convince everyone else that he's a dark and serious, super-cool evil mastermind. How much of this was intended by the script and how much of it was just him having fun with a one-dimensional part has never been entirely clear to me, but it works, and the idea of an awkward geek trying to be a Bond villain is pretty appropriate.

"So, I'm thinking about some
cosmetic surgery? And after that,
I'm gonna make out with my brother.
What do you think?"
Moreu's script isn't very good – it's really dumb – but the enthusiasm of the cast and Softley's stylized MTV-ish direction transforms it into something irresistibly fun. When you have characters with names like Crash Override, Acid Burn, and Lord Nikon delivering lines like “If you wanna be elite, you gotta do a righteous hack!” it's near-impossible not to smile. If you strip away the cyberpunk-inspired trappings, the central themes and conflict are largely the same as other misunderstood-teens-fight-the-system dramas like Pump Up The Volume (another Movie Sleuth favorite in serious need of a blu-ray release), which have always been a staple of both genuinely good movies and fun guilty-pleasure ones, and with good reason. When you're a teenager, the appeal is cathartic; when you're an adult, the appeal is nostalgic. That is the core of Hackers' watchability, and the added layers of camp and stylized high-tech coolness just make it more fun. It's a very dumb, silly movie, but as eye and brain candy it's delicious.

Click to purchase
After years of apathetic distribution from MGM, which saw it as little more than a curious footnote to Angelina Jolie's early career, it's great that a studio has finally shown Hackers some love. But that said, this release really isn't the definitive special edition we might have hoped for. What special features there are look pretty awesome, but they aren't as plentiful as on other Shout! Factory releases. Shout! produced new interviews with key members of the film's cast and crew, including director Iain Softley, visual effects artist Peter Chiang, costume designer Roger Burton, and actors Fisher Stevens and Penn Jillette. Also interviewed are the film's “hacking consultants” – whose perspective should be very interesting, considering that much of the film's computer-related content is highly fictionalized – and film critic Mark Kermode, who I would never have guessed is any sort of Hackers fan. But while all of that sounds great, notably absent is a commentary track on the film itself, and interviews with any of the film's major stars besides Stevens. I suspect that getting Angelina Jolie to sit down and talk about Hackers might be difficult, but what about Jonny Lee Miller, or even Matt Lillard or Laurence Mason? It's a solid enough release, just not as great as it could have been.

Unless this disc is wildly successful beyond all expectations, though, this is likely the best release that a minor cult classic like Hackers is likely to get, so we should enjoy it. And regardless, it is a huge upgrade over MGM's lazy and bare-bones 1998 flip-disc DVD, which is the last stand-alone release that it received. If you're at all interested in the cyber-camp spectacle that this film provides, it is easily worth picking up. It may not be a good movie, but it is an awesome one.


-Christopher S. Jordan

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