So it’s a toss-up between watching the more serious, quality The Stunt Man or this, which promises teen angst, hot mid-90s attitude, young Angelina Jolie, and now-obsolete technology being portrayed as on the burning edge. By the time you add the words “dated, campy” that were on the Netflix envelope, my mind was made up.
We open in 1988 Seattle, where the FBI suddenly raids this house, then switch to a courtroom where this hacker is being sentenced—but wait, he’s only like 12! He is not allowed to touch a computer until his 18th birthday. Prepubescent cyber-criminals, ladies and gentlemen… THIS is the world we are living in today.
So we advance to 1995, and the kid from earlier has now grown up to be Dade Murphy, played by Johnny Lee Miller, and on his 18th birthday, he’s up to his old hacking ways [incredibly, he was able to keep up on changes in computer security measures without ever touching a PC], and taking over a television station, because he REALLY wants to watch The Outer Limits and they haven’t invented TiVO yet. He happens upon another hacker ALSO taking over this television station, named Acid Burn [Johnny, by the way, is Crash Override]. Apparently at the time this movie was made, TV stations were run by having banks of videotapes, which robotic arms ran along, grabbing a tape, inserting it into a VCR and pushing ‘play.’ Somehow I find that somewhat difficult to entirely believe, and it seems especially difficult to swallow that two robotic arms, controlled by two different hackers, might snipe at each other with this little extensor claws, like fighting animals. It is the first big WTF?!?! sequence of the movie, of which there are MANY. While this is happening, Dade and Acid Burn are sending each other full-screen IM’s, such as “Mess with the best, die like the rest.” It’s rather amazing that Dade is able to hack so fluidly at all, given the thunk-thunk-thunk slowness with which he types his IMs. Acid Burn finally shuts him out, and we see Dade get up the next morning and take a shower. We are in the midst of wondering how he maintains such a buff body when all he does is sit around computers, when his mother picks up a land-line telephone and bewails that he connected over it and you’re like WAIT—So all that happened over DIAL-UP???
So Dade and mom [no word on where Dad is] move to NYC. As Dade looks down on the city, he sees it all turn into a microchip board—he’s so analytical! Our young geniuses of today. He starts his first day of school, where he soon meets Angelina Jolie with short hair and deep red raccoon-like eye makeup, as Kate. He looks at her lips and has an explosion of images from the Venus de Milo to footage of kissing from an old film. She is part of a group that plays a joke on the new kids, including Dade, that sends them to the roof just in time for the thunderstorm they planned on. After this, Dade meets obligatory black friend the Phantom Freak, who is soon joined by younger, wannabe hacker Joey, played by Jesse Bradford. I’m on a little bit of a Jesse kick, as he had a major role at the age of 14 in King of the Hill, wherein he was quite impressive, and we later saw him as a young adult in Swimfan and Bring it On. Here he seems to be about 15, and is suitably awkward. Little Jesse—we’re watching him grow up on film!
Okay, so Dade apparently just moved to NYC, and this was his first day of school, and yet that very night he’s rollerblading around Canal Street in his leather jacket. I can’t even go into the myriad levels on which this is ludicrous. He pops into this exclusive [not THAT exclusive, I guess] cyber-nightclub that has a full complement of skate ramps, a video game console about as large as a mid-sized room, and of course, techno music. I have failed to mention so far that the mid-90s techno music is almost constant throughout this film. Now it's true, I am not really connected to the underground scene here in New York, but I highly doubt that there are, or were, cyber-hacker-skate-video-game nightclubs—catering to HIGH SCHOOL students. But no matter. Dade hooks up with the Phreak, Joey, and Matthew Lillard as Cereal Killer, who wears tiny round glasses and has four short braids coming down from his head. The Phreak and Joey are conspicuously smoking, with Joey actually having one lit cigarette in each hand. Dade plays this video game that requires him to fly down this tunnel avoiding things, and he beats Kate's high score, which has apparently never been done before and thus makes an "enemy for life" of her. Joey talks about how he hacked into this bank, and everyone else says that was stupid, because he could easily get caught. I hope you're not detecting any foreshadowing there.
Oh sorry, I was mixing that first time Dade went to the bar with the second time. In between, he hacked into the school's computer and made the sprinkler's go off, while he brought an umbrella, as revenge for the fictitious pool incident. He also transferred himself into Kate's class, where her teacher tolerates her climbing and standing on his desk. We're still at the point where there is a lot of fake hostility between Kate and Dade, which will soon vanish.
Okay, so now comes this AMAZING sequence in which Joey hacks in to something or other and here's where we have one of my favorite tropes of techno-movies, which is that the simple act of computing simply isn't exciting enough to show in a movie, so they have to invent all these graphic ways of visualizing the computing process. Here we zoom into the monitor, them zoom down a tube of computer components, then down hallways, until he logs into the big supercomputer, which is in a room with these luminous vertical boxes with glowing information on them, and that have ripples of light slowly travel upwards along their surfaces—anyone who has ever been in a server room will know exactly what I mean. Anyway, Joey breaks into some super-secret file—which obviously displays as starry nebula with calculus formulas floating through it... anyone who has used a PC in the last 20 years would be familiar with such a thing—but this draws the attention of Eugene something, AKA the Plague, the hacker that this mega-corporation keeps on staff as a Internet security department. He is played by Fisher Stevens with this big hair and a beard, and that, added to his demeanor, left me with the feeling that I was watching this role as performed by Fozzie Bear in makeup. Anyway, Joey copies the super-duper-secret file.
So next we see Joey in the shower rockin' out to the tunes while listening to his plastic-bag-encased headphones. He finds a SWAT team waiting for him, however, and they haul him off, as well as all his computer equipment. You will notice that when he leaps out to save his equipment, he clutches after his MONITOR, not his actual computer. Come on guys, THAT is a bad mistake. Then this guy Richard Gill, said to be the scourge of hackers everywhere, tells the news what a menace hackers are, and we introduce these two detectives—one of whom is played by Mr. J. Lo, Marc Anthony.
Now our scene shifts to this high-powered office, which I THINK is supposed to be this shipping company, which would make it a little ludicrous—okay, a little MORE ludicrous—that they need to employ this top-notch Internet security department. Here's where we first see Lorraine Bracco, who for some time was on an elite list, with Sean Young and Theresa Russell, of the absolute worst possible actresses ever—and her performance her definitely places her smack-dab in the middle of that period. Every one of her lines readings is just off by about 17 miles, which is to say nothing of her hair here. Perhaps she and Stevens had a competition to out-fluff each other. Anyway, it would seem that some hacker either did, or just threatens to, sink one of the company's tankers, and will do five more unless he gets 5 million clams. But get this, bitches—the Plague actually created the virus HIMSELF in order to pin it on the other hackers, and keep the money for himself. Shocker! Oh, I forgot to mention that he tells the oil executives or whoever that there "is no manual ccontrol anymore" on their tankers, that they are completely computer-controlled, which is obvious hogwash, but an amusing thought.
SPOILERS > > > So now the Plague has realized that Dade is in on the whole hack into his system, in a way I don't understand because my DVD had a few scratches and I missed little chunks of the film here and there. Anyway, he brings the FBI by for a chat, and tries to recruit Dade—even going so far as to smash his boom box when he won't agree. Watch it, or your boom boxes will get it! But really, what he needs is "the disc," which has the super-duper-mega-secret program on it, which I suppose is this virus that's going to sink the tankers. Now, here's something I've been keeping from you, in order not to crack all of this over your heads at once, but… "the disc" they are incessantly talking about here is… wait for it… wait… a 3 ½" floppy disc. Yes, you see, the super-mega-powerful-ultra-top-secret-virus-that-has-the-power-to-destroy-mankind IS IN FACT less than 1.44 megabytes! That just blows my mind. These hackers must REALLY be good! Anyway, Dade DOES indeed stand in front of his mirror, brandish the disc and say "You talkin' to me?"
Anyway, it would happen that Kate turns out to be Acid Burn, the one with whom Dade was involved in cyber-combat with before he even moved to New York. After he admires the SWEET 28.8 kbps modem she conducts her cyber-crimes with [Holy FUCK these kids are even slower than I thought!]. They made a bet to try to out-hack each other at making the life of Richard Gill, Mr. Anti-hacker, a living hell. They do mean stuff like drain his bank accounts, etc., but there's one really nasty homophobic thing here: they set up a gay personal ad for him, including every variation they can think of. I don't have much of a problem with that, but there's a scene in which Gill's phone, which seems to have at least 50 lines, is all jammed up with guys describing dirty gay sex acts to him. I'm not too thrilled with Gill's editorial on it all: "That's disgusting!," but what annoys me is the way it portrays the callers as just yakking on, describing their sex acts, regardless of whether anyone is on the phone or not. You know, gays can and do respond to verbal cues like "hello" and "goodbye," and don't just start talking to no one. It's the old, tired idea that gays are just so uber-sexed and socially maladjusted that they would do such a thing. I know, it's just a joke, but that's when many of the most offensive elements get through, because someone somewhere just "thought it was funny" without really stopping to think what the implications were. Grrrr! Anyway, they finally have Gill arrested, which, for some reason, they must do from the antenna of the Empire State Building—which as far as I know, is a fairly secure area. These kids are daredevils, too!
So then Kate has a sex dream about Dade—I actually liked the random diversion of this touch—then Plague, looking Fozzier than ever, sends Dade a laptop and asks Dade to help him, explicitly telling him he wants the disc. By the way, this is one of those movies in which the monitor projects its image onto the user's face. Yep. There has also been throughout—only around now it becomes completely undeniable—a whole strain of pure comedy running through all this. For example, The Phreek has a dream in which the FBI break into his house. He wakes, and the FBI busts into his house. But before they take him down, he has a moment where he says "Woah, déjà vu!" It's not funny, but it shows that a lot of the goofiness here is intentional.
Anyway, he's arrested, but he left the disc somewhere for the others to find. They request help from Dade, but he says he can't touch it, because he can't be arrested again. But he agrees to copy it—then he gives it to Plague when he hacks into police records and makes it so his mother would be arrested the next day. At a certain point he apparently travels all the way to Brooklyn and takes a fairly long walk just to make a pay phone call from a photogenic spot under the Brooklyn Bridge. Then, of course, he relents and helps his new friends discover what the code is. This, of course, necessitates more flying through floating numerical equations [in fact, the very same ones] and cities of data.
So they all decide that they will join forces and try to "hack the Gibson," which is the central computer of the super-big tanker company, but also a reference to author William Gibson, inventor of the term "Cyberspace." If Wiki is to be believed, the phrase "Hacking the Gibson" has now become common parlance amongst programmers and such—and to test this out, I just asked one of the programmers at my job, and he's like "Oh yeah, we used to say it all the time. I'll be like 'Whatcha doin'?' and someone will say 'Oh, just hacking the Gibson.'" So there you go! You too can talk like a programmer! I'm going to totally work that into conversation from here on out, so I can seem like a sexy programmer. A sexy, sexy programmer.
So they have to do this from Grand Central Station, because they have to be in a public place and all that. To get there, they cause a traffic jam by screwing with the lights [the exact wheres an hows of this is better unexamined], then ROLLER SKATE as a TEAM up to Grand Central. They're roller-hackers! This is one of those elements that just shoots this film into the silly teen stratosphere. They get to Grand Central, each occupy one phone booth, Joey with his cigarette dangling from his mouth, which I had started to find a little offensive by now—I mean, the kid IS underage. You ARE essentially telling us that cool underage teens smoke. Anyway, so they pop open their laptops—their giant, clunky laptops—at the phone booths and go for it. There are numerous flying equations and data cityscapes—I LOVE it. Meanwhile Plague is at work, trying to lock them out as they try to get in, as Lorraine stands around asking exposition-inviting questions. As this happens, this SWAT team is taking forever to find the kids on their pay phones—Grand Central is not actually THAT big, but the hacker kids have a little surprise in for them. Then—spinning phone booths! Yes, to show that these kids are in the zone and riding a wave along the information superhighway, they are in little spinning phone booths right in the middle of Grand Central. I love it. It's particularly amusing to watch Angelina giving her knowing "Uh-huh… fuck yeah" smirk before it would become famous. I'm sure I need hardly mention that this is the movie on which she met her first husband, Mr. Jonny Lee Miller. Anyway, they have this huge cyber-battle, and then the FBI finds them! And all looks lost!
But wait! Then Cereal Killer hacks every television station and tells the story about Plague created the virus and tried to blame it on the sweet, innocent hackers—and despite the fact that he doesn't really show any evidence, everyone believes him, and the FBI lets them all go right away. Okay, now if Matthew Lillard suddenly appeared on TV with four big braids and making these wild accusations, wouldn't you want at least want to see some evidence? Regardless, the bad guys get caught, the hackers are vindicated, and Kate and Dade are finally free to have sex in some sort of fountain or something.
< < < SPOILERS END
This is one of those things you put in because it's going to be cheesy, but end up totally, sincerely loving. You have this diverse group of cool teenagers who have this special, secret knowledge that allows them to wield great power over others. They are somehow supposedly socially-maladjusted nerds and yet at the same time the coolest people in school. They dress cool, go to cool parties, have cool toys, do cool naughty things, and eventually all band together and have to spring into action. None of which is to mention the whole thread of humor that goes through the entire movie, and the air that even when things are totally goofy, they're still cool [the spinning phone booths being a perfect example], and soon you have a movie that reminded me most of The Breakfast Club. It's not surprising that more than one person on the IMDb mentioned wishing that he could hang out with these characters.
Another element that is eminently mockable yet strangely endearing is the wild way that this film diverges from reality. Hate to break this to you, but most computer hackers do not look like Angelina Jolie or Jonny Lee Miller. I also like the way this movie smoothly elides over the real crimes and consequences that hackers cause. When it is mentioned that Dade, as a child, brought down 1,500 systems, it is considered just kind of cute, harmless prank. The movie doesn't seriously engage with the harmful aspects of real hackers, but says that [and this was the film's tagline:] "their only crime is curiosity," more than a little disingenuous. And then there's the many, oft-noted, complete mischaracterizations of technology, how it works, and what it can do—and I'm not all that computer savvy, I'm sure there's a ton I didn't catch. The thing is, in the 13 years since this movie came out, most people are now familiar with the technology we're talking about here, so now virtually anyone is in-the-know enough to laugh at this. And this is where the movie's sense of humor really saves it, since because it doesn't take itself too seriously, it allows for all that derisive laughter to happen without really holding it against the movie itself. If you allow yourself to get into this, and it's really difficult not to, this can be a really fun, amusing movie that will put a smile on your face.
Yes, it's really fun, even if you're not very tech-savvy. Although if you're reading this on the Internet, you're tech-savvy enough.