The Resurgence of the Hollywood Hacker

2014's best and worst portrayals of people staring into small screens on the big screen.

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Dec 22 2014, 12:50pm

​Image: watchara/Shutterstock

It's been the year of the Hollywood hacker in more ways than one. We read the awkward Powerpoints, payroll information, and private emails of Sony executives, and we saw a lot more of Jennifer Lawrence than we expected.

But even as the industry's privacy was invaded, this year saw the figure of the hacker celebrated on screen in portrayals ranging from sci-fi flick (Transcendence) to documentary (The Internet's Own Boy) to period drama (The Imitation Game). The influence of Laura Poitras's Edward Snowden film Citizen​four, especially, has translated into a resurgence of interest in the techy hero, cast as activist, antagonist, and 90s-style cyberpunk hero.

Upcoming thriller Blac​khat looks to continue the theme into next year, but for now here's a round-up of some of 2014's best and worst portrayals of people staring into small screens on the big screen. (Special mention also goes to TV shows House of Cards for its series two ​shout-out to the deep web, and Halt and Catch​ Fire for its depiction of vintage 80s hardware and haircuts.)


The Imitation Game

Tumblr fandom comes full circle with Benedict Cumberbatch cast as the father of computer science. Following Alan Turing through the wartime years when he worked on breaking Germany's Enigma code, this is by far the most polite and tweedy hacker portrayal on the list, though there are lots of luscious shots of the internet's favourite otter-lookalike scribbling in notebooks, and closeups of the cogs and gears of Christopher, Turing's "universal machine," at work.

Hack level: Scenes of mild peril and proto-phreaking


Transcendence

There was a time not long ago when it was conceivable that Johnny Depp might have broken the internet, but now those powers rest entirely with Kim Kardashian. A meandering riff on transhumanism, Transcendence sees Depp's smug yet apparently brilliant scientist cheat mortality by uploading himself to the PINN, a large-scale "neural network" which allows him to transcend his ailing body. From there he "goes Galt" and starts building a desert utopia, taking advantage of his power to break into the minds of his biohacked subjects. Plot holes and mild philosophising ensue. The film was a box office failu​re, and criticised as misgui​ded by scientists and critics alike.

Hack level: Minor DDoS


Non-Stop

Phone hacking! Death threats! A bomb on a plane! So far, so Liam Neeson. The film sees an alcoholic air marshall (apparently you can bring large glass bottles of whiskey onto flights…) faced with the small problem of a murderer on board. One interesting theme explored is our post-9/11 lack of trust in authority—throw into the mix a socially codified setting (first class, business, economy) and a hero called Marks ( Marx?) and this mostly brainless thriller might have a subtext. Also, watch out for Lupito Nyong'o's dismal English accent, and one particularly hysterical moment where the evening news accuses Neeson's character of being in the IRA.

Hack level: Requires more bandwidth


Algorithm: The Hacker Movie

Shot on a crowdsourced budget and commendable for avoiding the usual clichéd jargon and key-mashing, this film would be likable if it weren't so terminally unengaging. Our hero, gormless career hacker Hash, trudges a grey and pallid landscape reeling off platitudes about hacker culture ("I was a god… I make the world we live in") and belittling the public for their use of social media (he sees "the photo you post of your new ATM card"—does anyone actually do this?). Clashing with a sinister organisation called Emergency, it's not long before Hash is holed up in a tinfoil-lined room evading surveillance, and the plot segues from there into sanctimonious self-parody.

Hack level: storage capacity 80 G​B


The Signal

This had me at "alien technology." Part The 4400 sci-fi, part Cabin in the Woods-style thriller, The Signal follows three MIT students targeted by a mysterious online presence named Nomad. The plot begins along familiar lines—our young heroes embark on a road trip, arriving at a creepy abandoned house—but takes a sci-fi turn as they awake in a subterranean hospital facility, watched over by wardens in hazmat suits. The clammy, paranoid atmosphere, all antiseptic white corridors and outdated 80s technology, gives way to an impossible twist, but the film is beautifully sinister (see the gorgeous eye-bending po​ster) and conjures the prospect that ingenuity and a wifi connection can very quickly lead you into surreal territory.

Hack level: Trojan horse


Who Am I—No System Is Safe

This German thriller looks like Fight Club with laptops, all grimy urban landscapes, hoodies, and CCTV. An Anonymous-inspired collective called CLAY lives out the cyberpunk dream, pairing its online hacks with offline heists. Cue a screechy Boys Noize soundtrack and lots of breaking into buildings wearing clown masks. Of all the films on the list, this most closely resembles 90s cyber-fantasy: fun and utterly unfeasible IRL.

Hack level: SECURE THE MAINFRAME!


The Internet's Own Boy

The only film on the list that'll make you tear up, this documentary stands out in a year of mythologised "hacker" portrayals as a portrait of an activist, rather than a force for chaos, bravado, or greed. A biography presented as a kind of oral history, director Brian Knappenberger uses the life and death of Aaron Swartz to capture a moment in the history of the internet and the rights of its users. The result is very moving and very troubling, an education in the American justice system as much as a eulogy for a life ended too soon.

Hack level: White hat


The Hacker Wars

"The war has already begun.." Vivien Lesnik Weisman's documentary presents the hacker as enemy of state, showing the raids, trials, and prison terms that ensue when the hacker's work transcends mere anarchy and trolling for the lulz, and borders on civil disobedience. Interviews with Weev, NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, and hacktivist Jeremy Hammond all feature, offering a one-sided but compelling depiction of the struggle between hacker and state.

Hack level: NSA data leak