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Why Hackers is still the best cyberspace movie of the mid-90s

The cult classic may look stuck in the mid-’90s but its ideas still hold up today.

1995 was a banner year for films trying to make sense of the new-fangled frontier known as cyberspace. You had Johnny Mnemonic, in which Keanu Reeves plays a data trafficker using his brain as a literal hard drive in the pandemic-ravaged distant future of, erm, 2021. Then there was Sandra Bullock blowing pizza addicts’ minds by ordering her favorite 20” regular crust online — as well as becoming embroiled in a life-erasing conspiracy — in The Net. But last out of the gate was Hackers, a hyperkinetic techno-thriller where rollerblading computer prodigies thwart a megalomaniacal security officer known as The Plague.

Hackers might not have had the star power (at the time, anyway) or the box office appeal (it grossed just $7.5 million domestically during its paltry two-week wide release). But a quarter-century later, its relentless energy, magnetic before-they-were-famous cast, and refusal to take itself too seriously ensures that Hackers remains the far more entertaining watch of the bunch. This is a film where the bad guy famously snatches an invaluable floppy disk on a skateboard while holding onto a limousine, after all.

25 years later, it’s little surprise, therefore, that Hackers has evolved into a cult favorite. It’s packed full of quotable lines seemingly designed to be shouted at midnight screenings (“Hack the Planet,” “Mess with the best/die like the rest,” “There is no right and wrong/There’s only fun and boring”). Also, take a shot every time a team of gun-toting FBI agents magically appears to raid a young computer nerd’s messy bedroom, or whenever Matthew Lillard’s aggressively wacky “Cereal Killer” launches into a diatribe against The Man.

Everyone’s favorite group of mid-‘90s rollerblading high school hackers.Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

For those of you who haven’t yet succumbed to its charms, Hackers revolves around Dade Murphy (Jonny Lee Miller), a brooding 18-year-old who seven years earlier knocked seven points off the New York Stock Exchange in a hack attack under the guise of Zero Cool. With his ban on operating computers — and don’t forget touch-tone telephones — now lifted, the bleached blond joins a group of like-minded anarchists with similarly ridiculous names including Lord Nikon and The Phantom Phreak.

Things soon go awry when they discover a garbage file designed by a slimy ex-hacker (Fisher Stevens) to defraud the mineral conglomerate he’s now employed to protect. The criminal mastermind does everything he can to retrieve the disk containing the file, but he underestimates just how resourceful a gang of teenage cyberpunks can be. It might sound ridiculous, but the far-fetched premise, Hackers is still grounded in more reality than its fellow primitive web movies.

How did Hackers get the internet right? Screenwriter Rafael Moreu spent a considerable amount of time immersing himself in the hacking subculture he described as “the next step in human evolution.” His friend Mark Abene, who’d done jail time for his hacking activities as Phiber Optik, proved to be a particularly valuable source of inspiration. The movie’s star, Lee Miller, even showed up at a hacker convention to prepare for his role.

According to modern-day hackers, this in-depth research paid off. In a piece for Vice, the founder of malware analysts Concinnity Risks complimented the sprinkler scene for showing how the virtual world can have a real-world impact; software engineer Paul Tagliamonte applauded the film for spending “time and effort making the cultural aspect a pretty in-tune caricature;” and security advisor Cal Leeming, who credits Hackers for inspiring his career, claims it captures “the very essence of what hacking is.”

Matthew Lillard in typically understated form and Angelina Jolie.Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

Of course, it doesn’t really matter how convincing you find its handling of dumpster diving and social engineering. The joy of Hackers lies in its style, not its substance, whether it’s the club kid vibes of the gang’s Cyberdelia hangout, the data-filled CGI skyscrapers of The Plague’s headquarters, or its psychedelic depictions of cyberspace itself.

You can’t forget its absolute banging soundtrack, either, perhaps the only aspect of Hackers that hasn’t dated in the slightest. Its most prominent number, the manic techno of The Prodigy’s “Voodoo People,” encapsulates the high-tech thrills of the subculture like no other. And Leftfield’s “Original,” Massive Attack’s “Protection” and Underworld’s “Cowgirl” all stand up as classics from a time when electronic dance music didn’t mean overpaid superstar DJs just pushing play. You can understand why not just one but three soundtrack volumes were released.

Director Iain Softley, following up his BAFTA-nominated biopic of Fifth Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe, Backbeat, was instrumental in how Hackers sounded. And he was also responsible for assembling the fresh-faced cast, many of whom were on the verge of stardom at the time.

The future Mr and Mrs. Lee MillerMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

Angelina Jolie had already appeared in a sci-fi thriller, 1992’s forgotten schlockfest Cyborg 2, but Hackers was the first film where her star quality shone through. As the enigmatic hacker nicknamed Acid Burn, she also shares palpable chemistry with Lee Miller, the Londoner who’d quickly abandon his clean-cut image with the role of Trainspotting’s drug-addled womanizer Sick Boy. Relative unknowns Lillard (Scream, Scooby-Doo) and Jesse Bradford (Bring It On, Swimfan), the latter of whom played baby of the group Joey, would go on to bigger and better things, too.

Sure, the whole plot is B-movie hokum and as you’d expect from an era when the search engine of choice was Alta Vista, its sexual politics haven’t aged particularly well, either. But unlike most Hollywood cyber-movies of the mid-’90s, Hackers’ early peek into the world wide web still has some relevance in the modern digital age.

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