For the past 30 years, Hollywood has consistently struggled to depict computer hacking in accurate and exciting ways. The history of Hollywood and hacking is littered with lazy writing, absurdly unrealistic computer interfaces and stereotypical "nerd" characters. But in amongst the idiocy we've also seen certain films influencing governmental policy, inspiring entire sub-cultural identities and guiding mainstream attitudes around computer security.
The first two parts in our Hollywood and Hacking series traced the rise of on-screen hacking from the innocence of the '80s through the neon-infused '90s. As the turn of the millennium approached, representations of computer hacking in film started to take a darker turn. The influence of computing on wider culture was growing more complex and as more people were becoming familiar with the technology, depictions of hacking began to shift towards realism instead of the colorful exaggerations of the prior decade.
Take a closer look at Hollywood hacking in the 21st century in our video below:
The Matrix arrived in 1999 to change the face of sci-fi cinema with a view on hacking filtered through the fantastically fetishistic lens of the Wachowski siblings. In 2000 we saw the most notable, early "based on a true story" hacker film with Takedown, the story of hacker Kevin Mitnick. Takedown was dogged by controversy as Mitnick sued the studio for defamation claiming the film was sensationalistic and untrue. The case was settled out of court.
Continuing the trend of semi-realistic hacking stories, the following year saw the release of AntiTrust, an amusing concoction starring Tim Robbins as an evil corporate CEO seemingly played by Robbins as a thinly disguised impression of Bill Gates. The film is mostly notable for its foregrounding of Linux as an operating system and its introduction of the concept of "open source" software to the mainstream public. In true "open source" spirit the film even triumphantly concludes with our hero Ryan Phillipe exclaiming, "Human knowledge belongs to the world!" before ending on a happy freeze frame of our hacker heroes.
Hollywood wasn't done with idiotic hacker depictions though, oh no. Swordfish in 2001 did its best to make hacking sexy, with a montage following Hugh Jackman in full hack mode dancing to big beat music and hacking a mainframe that was extravagantly animated to look like some kind of hypercube. The sequence deploys every cinematic hacking cliche imaginable and for that reason, it's a little bit brilliant.
Swordfish also gains cinematic notoriety for titling itself after a long-running Hollywood in-joke. "Swordfish" is used as a password in numerous hacking movies from Hackers to The Net and these references call back to a classic Marx Bros routine from Horse Feathers in 1932, where Groucho tries to get into a secret speakeasy with a password of "swordfish".
On the other side of the coin we find one of the most hilarious Hollywood hacks of the early 2000s. In the movie The Core our eponymous hacker arrives at a hip "cyber cafe" and embarks upon one of the most incomprehensible and over-animated hacks ever depicted by Hollywood. It's as if the filmmakers derived all their knowledge of computers from cinema circa 1992 and then just spat some terrible CGI animation into our faces. It's unbelievable, outdated and makes Hugh Jackman's Swordfish hack look cutting edge.
For the remainder of the early 2000s hacking in Hollywood dipped in and out of retro aesthetics struggling to find a way to relevantly incorporate this burgeoning technology into its narratives. As digital technology became more and more prominent in people's lives a void began to appear in Hollywood movies. How was cinema to reconcile these technological innovations into its stories?
The cliche of the omnipotent "computer guy" became prominent in almost every Hollywood blockbuster from the early 2000s to this very day. Any big film where a hero was gathering a team together for some kind of heist or scheme always incorporated a nerdy guy at a console, from Mission Impossible to Ocean's Eleven. The James Bond films even succumbed to this trend, transitioning the character of Q from a gadget guy to a bespectacled hacker archetype. Most amusingly, The Italian Job gave us a great example of this character with Seth Green playing Lyle, a computer hacker who constantly talks about how he was the real creator of Napster.
Firewall in 2006 gave us Harrison Ford as a hacker who looked constantly confused. This is possibly because Ford himself had no idea what was going on despite his character being purportedly quite a knowledgable computer user. Pulse from the same year took hacking into the realm of modern horror as a bunch of hip computer kids released an evil entity from the internet through their indiscriminate computer cracks.
In 2007 the Die Hard franchise was revived with Live Free or Die Hard, a film that pitched John McLane into a world dominated by nerdy computer guys. The film showed interesting foresight in integrating cyber terrorism as a narrative threat depicting a surprisingly prophetic scenario of bad guys taking a country's major infrastructure down via computers.
Considering just a few years later the Stuxnet worm appeared in reality to do an incredibly similar thing, we can at the very least give the screenwriters some credit for their clever technological awareness. Having said that, we also were subjected to Kevin Smith playing a cliched super-hacker living in his parent's basement so you know… strikes and gutters.
The new wave of Hollywood hacking
At the turn of the first decade in the new millennium we began to see a new aesthetic emerge in Hollywood hacking hacking scenarios, a kind of hip, nihilistic realism. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (both the Swedish and Hollywood versions) modernized the hacker archetype turning those computer rebels into punky, pierced outcasts and depicting the pragmatics of hacking in a realistically dry way.
The Fifth Estate in 2013 served an odd mash-up of hacking aesthetics that at times felt like a cross between Hackers from 1995 and a generic Julian Assange biopic. It was odd, unsuccessful and unmemorable, as if it was trying to reconcile a modern approach to hacking in film with an old-school vibe.
Directing legend Michael Mann also tapped the non-fiction hacking zeitgeist in 2015 with his Stuxnet-inspired BlackHat, a film that valiantly tries to split the difference between accurate interfacing and whiz-bang graphics. Incorporating mostly very realistic hacking strategies the film is commendable in its commitment to using real-code and probable scenarios but we still get some sexed up sequences where we fly into computer circuits and down wires.
Most recently the bar was raised by Mr Robot, a television series that has taken accuracy in its portrayal of on-screen computer hacking to a new level. Mr Robot foregoes the classical Hollywood tradition of creating artificial CGI computer interfaces and also shows an obsessive attention to detail never before seen on screen. Kor Adana, a former white hat hacker, works with the show's producers to make sure every on-screen hack is depicted so accurately that eagle-eyed viewers can freeze-frame screenshots and discover that all the code inputted is actually real.
Adana even works with a team of computer security specialists to "test run" every computer hack depicted in the series. So that code you see our hackers madly bashing into their computers are actual working commands. Even better are the easter eggs embedded into the onscreen code. For those technologically inclined, there are multitudes of things to be found by freeze framing a screen in the show. Following a random IP address can take you to mystery websites the producers have set up or digging into the code itself can reveal programming in-jokes and references to other classic hacking icons such as the term "Hack the Gibson" lifted from a line in 1995's Hackers.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Mr Robot has been the way it has incorporated real hacking scenarios into its narratives while maintaining on-screen dramatic tension. The show explodes the long-held notion that it's simply unexciting to watch someone tapping code into a computer by fundamentally understanding the drama inherent in real computer hacking processes. Ransomware, The Silk Road, phone cracks, and encrypted communication are all incorporated into a gripping modern conspiracy narrative that pulses with energy.
So here we are, in 2016, more collectively wired than ever before. Hollywood is finally catching up with its audience and serving up some stories that understand and reflect the technology that we all use every day. But fans of terrible film hacking needn't worry, the dream is not dead, after all, the latest Jason Bourne film still shows the CIA have all their secrets in a nicely labelled "Black Ops" folder.