Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Their only crime was curiosity - the aesthetics of 'Hackers'

The early 90s was an era when the world was not-so tech savvy. Grown ups believed that muggers could get in down your telephone line and computers in movies were almost universally sentient (and evil). That said, Iain Softley's movie about an annoying bunch of teenagers sees them do things with laptops which, even upon its release in 1995, looked pretty improbable. In those days anyone who had actually used a computer knew it was less about cool kids getting up to high jinks set to the beats of techno music, and more putting up with squawking modems and endless load times while your parents moaned at you for hogging the phone line.

For all its absurdity Hackers captures the heady, euphoric promise of the emerging digital world. In it tech is a lifestyle and one that only the youth can comprehend. Its aesthetics bleed into clothing, decor and club spaces. This article in Dazed is a great analysis, and it points out some of the more progressive things about Hackers. Like the fact its positive depiction of a woman in tech. But the author is ultimately more enamoured with the movie than I am (more on that later) so I'll stick to ground she doesn't cover.

The movie's main cast, in all their varied styles. They encapsulate the breadth of youth culture of the time, from baggy streetwear to post-punk-queer, indie and biker styles. This variety is also reflected in the tech the gang use, from then-state-of-the-art laptops to spiral bound, home printed hackers' manuals.

A young Angelina Jolie wears white for much of the movie, looking like a puckish droog. She is a counterpoint to Johnny Lee Miller in his more sombre garb.

Acid Burn, Jolie's character, has a large portrait of the robot Maria, from Metropolis, in her room. This image often frames Jolie, and reinforces her as a woman of the future, who is desirable but unobtainable.

Johnny Lee Miller's character Dade "Zero Cool" Murphey is the the titular hero-on-a-journey. His garb begins as slightly dork-ish (in a sympathetic way) as he stumbles about his new life in New York sniffing after Acid Burn. He quickly morphs into more of a biker-bad-boy replete with reinforced jacket. Interesting touches include his bleached hair (which Miller retained for Trainspotting released a year later) that was a 90s staple for dapper young men.

Dade in dork mode.

Matthew Lillard's character Emmanuel "Cereal Killer" Goldstein gets a varied wardrobe of punk-influenced reconfigured clothing. While Acid Burn has all the latest tech, courtesy of her wealthy mother, Cereal Killer represents the polar opposite - the mend-and-make-do side of hacking where kit is held together by duck tape.

Cereal Killer in his military garb

Acid's laptop - probably a Mac PowerBook Duo 270c with a custom transparent chassis.

Ramon "The Phantom Phreak" Sanchez (Renoly Santiago) was a refreshingly queer character for a youth movie in the mid-90s. His flamboyant animal prints and bright colours reflected a trend for lurid combinations. This is most evident in the solarised computer graphics seen in the movie, like those of the films MacGuffin - the Da Vinci virus.

Phantom Phreak in one of his more monochrome outfits 

 The Da Vinci virus helpfully explains its demands to its victims.

Phantom is not the only queer character in the movie. Razor and Blade are two flamboyant TV presenters who live together, seemingly in a fortified club-cum-TV-studio. Its decor reflects their exotic clobber, including the Mona Lisa wallpaper seen here (another reference to Da Vinci).
Eugene "The Plague" Belford (Fisher Stevens) is the titular bad guy - an ex-hacker now working for a corporation. Just to ensure you don't mistake him for a hero, he's full-on Dracula, with slick, dark hair and an evil goatee. He's an interesting portrait of a rebel grown up, floating about on his skateboard eating candy straws while trust up in some svelt waistcoats and tailored jackets. He channels a youthful Trent Rezner and is far better than Lorraine Bracco. She phones in an abysmal performance as his co-conspirator.  While his garb might be rather goth, he inhabits a slick apartment decked out in chrome and glass, the antithesis of the Cyberdelia club.

The Plague, in his lair.

 The walls of his open-plan flat are engraved with an atom motif, seen repeatedly throughout the movie. Like here:

Cyberdelia is where the hackers hang out and it's a portrait of how grown-ups thought the youth of the 90s spent their time - skateboarding and spray painting things they shouldn't. It's here that Crash challenges Acid to a game of Wipeout. Interestingly the title, by Psygnosis, was only released in 1995, and it's an early beta of the game that's featured in the movie. Psygnosis already had a long and impressive reputation in the industry built on games like Brataccas and it seems only natural that United Artists would have turned to them for material.

Cyberdelia, which is what a 90s club would look like if it were made by a movie studio with lots of money.

Tech becoming central to the cast of late-Gen-X's lives was prescient, but in billing it as a movement or youth cult was pretty off-the-mark. By 1995 tech was fast becoming part of everyday life via the dull silver chassis of all the kit that emerged by the end of the decade. Where Hackers failed (and - let me make this clear - this is in addition to being just a pretty poor movie) The Matrix succeeded a scant four years later. The Wachowskis made the real world look dull and stale, and conceded that a mythological techno-wonderland full of latex-clad models was much more interesting. They hit the zeitgeist in a way that Hackers failed to and history will remember Neo and wonder who the hell Crash Override* was.

*He's the lead in Hackers. That cyberpunk movie from the 90s. No, not the one with Keanu - that was in Johnny Mnemonic, which was also shit.


  1. I guess I remember Hackers with the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia; it was utterly absurd but good fun (and introduced me to The Prodigy).

    When you deconstruct it as an adult, you can see the gaping holes in it: for one thing, I think the aesthetics aren't at all in keeping with the age it was released. Things like the wardrobe look like they were designed by someone who last looked at youth culture in the 80's and hadn't bothered to update that information.

    Similarly, as any real life hacker would tell you, real life hacking is so mundane wherein people are literally sat in front of command windows laboriously input in code line by line. Hacking in films are sped up and simplified for a layman audience.

    It's a pity, because there are so many terrible films out there that you often back on fondly, because at the time you simply didn't realise how abysmal they really were, and find it hard to enjoy them again without feeling embarrassingly guilty.

    1. Agreed Gretchin - maybe it was already too late to try and fool audiences that hacking was that cool. But I do know what you mean about loving old (but awful) movies. I have some doozies in my love-list! Coppola's 'Dracula' anyone?

    2. Probably high on my guilty love list is Prince of Thieves. ^^

  2. I never saw Hackers - my uni flatmates went and saw it without me, the buggers - but it sounds like a weird mashup of things I grew up with: the Prodigy, William Gibson novels, goth and Wipeout. The visuals make me think of both Lawnmower Man (which the Prodigy sampled,IIRC) and Wild Palms, neither of which was without its flaws. Perhaps it would have worked better as outright science fiction.

    It's just a shame it doesn't sound very good!

    1. It is indeed a weird mashup, Toby, but, alas, not a great one! Something to watch while you're doing some hobby perhaps.

    2. Yes, there is a particular sort of film that's better watched for the look than the story. David Lynch's Dune springs to mind, even though the book is really good.

      That said, I love Coppola's Dracula. I reckon it's actually a good film, so long as you think he was trying to make a Victorian melodrama and not a "proper" adaptation.

  3. This movie is one that hit me at exactly the right moment. In highschool, and having an uncommonly early introduction to tech in elementary school which was rare at the time, setting the stage for my attachment to it. This film still holds a special place in my heart, flaws and all.