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Why "Hackers" is actually a good movie



The picture above is a completely unauthorized screengrab from the 1995 film Hackers.  What we're seeing is an image from the villain's computer as he researches the divorce of our hero's parents.

By googling certain phrases from the text on the right side, one can determine that the copy is from a real 1994 New York City court case, "Ilya Gotlib v. Lia Ratsutsky" which concerns the complicated divorce of two Russian nationals living in the U.S.  (How or why the New York City justice system allows its official court documents to be used by Hollywood for screen filler is probably due to some hippy fair-use public-record thing).

One of the reasons I still love to watch Hackers is to revisit the perspective of the young proto-geeks living in the age of dial-up.  I love to imagine what their reaction would be to our own brave new digital world, where among other wonders one can find 15-year-old civil court records based on random snatches of prose.

Our world is the world that Lord Nikon and Acid Burn dreamt about, and it's people like them, with their vision of a shiny, blinking future all wired up, who made it both possible and necessary.  It's important for me to see the technological present as, in many ways, a fully formed realization of someone's fantasy back in 1995, instead of just an imperfect and transitory phase on the way to something better.  I am living in Crash Override's future.  He didn't get to see it; he was just a character in a movie.

The other great thing about Hackers is, I guess, a little more personal.  There are moments in a computer engineer's life, often very brief and rare, when the system he is dealing with, this dumb impenetrable wall of instructions and silicon, blooms open in his mind like a flower, and the machine suddenly holds no more secrets.  He doesn't need to take apart every piece of it to gain an atomic, bottom-up understanding of its workings, not anymore.

The system reveals to the user the pattern of its being, and the beautiful machine of the human mind, trained millenia ago on predatory savannahs, is able to take this and run with it.  Once the pattern is revealed, once the creator's hand is seen, everything else about the system, the programming language, the operating system, the idiosyncratic hardware, it all just becomes an "implementation detail".

I'm talking about when you really grok a system.

This feeling, this rush of silicon communion is almost indescribable.  But I believe that Hackers has done as good a job at capturing it as any work of fiction has ever done.

Now, this movie has taken a lot of flak for using surreal animations to represent how the heroes intellectualize the systems they deal with.  But as has been mentioned before, the real, literal business of hacking is unphotogenic in the extreme.

It was never the filmmakers' goal to teach you anything about computers.  They're trying to paint you a cinematic portait of the inner emotional experience of applying a specialized set of skills to a specific genre of problem.  Obviously such a thing can only be done with visual metaphors.

If I had to identify why, independent of my own sense of joy in the film, Hackers is an unsuccessful movie, both aesthetically and commercially, it's because the language it uses to communicate its message is the language of the digital laity, the audience in general, who believes that working with computers is like working with adding machines, i.e. fundamentally unaware of how deeply emotional the experience can be.

And the people who do understand this are not the set that typically understands visual language or metaphor.  The criticisms of this film from this side are generally variations on the theme "Hacking doesn't look like that".  Of course it doesn't.  Nothing in movies actually looks like what it is.  But we computer types don't get that.  The reason we're so good with computers is because we're all borderline Asberger's and have sacrificed our entire right hemispheres in order to better think systematically.

But even this essential aesthetic inadequacy in Hackers, how its medium is fundamentally inscrutable by the only audience that could hope to understand its message, this still deepens my appreciation for it.  Because it took the risk.  It pushed the geek point of view out onto the screen, and it took a stab at how to capture it on celluloid.  I appreciate that, and I wish it happened more often.

And the fact that it tried that hard and still failed is strong evidence of how wonderfully unattainably complex such a worldview can be.

This movie proves through its failure the very points it tries to make about the rich inner life of software, and about the depths of the geek's soul.

Gina: a cat from 1999 until today

Subway Howl