Hollywood and Hacking: The 1990s – Techno, virtual reality and Steven Seagal’s Apple Newton
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.
Our first Hollywood and Hacking video looked at the 1980s, a period of innocence where computers could pretty much do anything. In part two of our series we travel through the 1990s, a wondrous era where hackers wore day-glo rave outfits and flew through colorful CGI mainframes.
We can identify two big waves for Hollywood hacking in the 1990s. The first era was ushered in by a film from some recognizable names.
1992: The new wave
The first wave of Hollywood hacking films in the 1990s began around 1992 and again the screenwriters of WarGames were there to set the bar. Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes devised the plot of Sneakers while researching WarGames ten years earlier. Once Robert Redford came on board the film became a breezily enjoyable mix of retro caper film and modern surveillance conspiracy thriller.
The film's depiction of hacking is perhaps a tad oversimplified (although we do get a brilliant scene showing a blind hacker crack a system with a braille keyboard) but the ideas the film raises are what elevates it to significance. The central plot has a couple of rogue NSA agents chasing down a black box that purportedly has the power to break any encryption – a story that is probably more relevant today than it was in 1992.
The film is fascinating in its portrayal of older "white hat" hackers, a subculture that to this day is rarely depicted in Hollywood narratives. Of course for every decent good guy hacker film we got a dozen terrible bad guy hacker films and the most notable of 1992 (notable meaning awful) is The Double O Kid, a hilarious piece of junk starring Corey Haim.
The film follows Haim as he uncovers a devious plot by a "computer virus designer" named Cashpot (played by the bizarrely cast Wallace Shawn). Hacking in the film is mostly depicted by nerdy looking characters randomly punching keys on a keyboard while numbers and letters incessantly stream over a monitor. The climax is where the film truly turns insane though. Haim ultimately defeats Cashpot by winning a game of 3D computer chess that for some incomprehensible reason controls this genius programmer's entire system.
1992 also served up plenty of modest but memorable cinematic hacker moments from Edward Furlong's ATM crack in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (a cinematic hack that had already been depicted in the 1985 film Prime Risk) to the compellingly awful The Lawnmower Man which triggered a wave of embarrassingly animated virtual reality films throughout the rest of the 1990s.
Over the next few years hacking slowly became de rigueur in Hollywood films, with every producer trying to tap the dawning zeitgeist. One of my personal favorite hacking moments from the era came in 1993's Jurassic Park with (as per tradition) a kid's computer knowledge saving the day. As the dinosaur attacks intensify young Lex Murphy slides up to a computer and exclaims, "It's a UNIX system! I know this!". The 3D interface depicted in the film was unexpectedly accurate for the time but it's difficult to imagine a twelve year-old having that kind of ability in navigating an obscure UNIX system.
1995: The year that hacking peaked
By 1995 it seemed like every film released had some kind of hacking or computer based sub-plot. From Goldeneye's stereotypical, keyboard-mashing hacker Boris ("I am invincible!") Grishenko to Rob Lowe's nefarious plot to take down Chris Farley in the film Tommy Boy, no movie missed the opportunity to depict hacking as the domain of bad guys, idiots and outcasts.
The nadir of 1995 hacking depictions came in Steven Seagal's train crash of a movie, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory. Crazy computer hacker Travis Dane (played by an occasionally embarrassed looking Eric Bogosian) climatically hacks into Seagal's Apple Newton using "a gigabyte of Ram." No world-conquering hacker should ever mess with Steven Seagal's Apple Newton though and the film concludes with our hero defeating the villain by disabling his computer program via a well-placed bullet.
The year was most influential for the release of Hackers, a film that defined a growing subculture and mashed it up with a side of neo-rave aesthetics. The actual depiction of hacking in Hackers contained an overload of unrealistic "traveling through the mainframe" animated sequences but it certainly defined the template for the next 20 years. From here on in it was impossible to stage a hacking scene without sub-par 3D animation and ravey big-beat tunes. Even Oliver Stone's latest Snowden film contains a hacking montage set to music that feels like it was gathered from a Hackers B-side. The biggest ongoing influence of Hackers though was in its broader depiction of the sub-cultures that were emerging around hacking. These hip, anarchists dressed in day-glo gear both reflected and influenced a generation to follow.
Another interesting oddity from 1995 was The Net, notable not exactly for its serious portrayal of hacking (again relying on the unrealistic 3D animated mainframe technique) but more for its impressive prescience in crafting a narrative depicting a fully networked world where your identity can be effectively erased by some well directed hacks. If anything this story has turned from exaggerated fiction to virtual documentary over the last 20 years.
Johnny Mnemonic and Virtuosity topped off a fascinating year for hacking and Hollywood and the rest of the 1990s offered an assortment of bizarro treats, including the memorable Goldblum hack in Independence Day where he takes down an alien spaceship using an Apple computer and a custom-written virus, and the amazing Masterminds which set a new bar for unrealistic interface depictions by turning hacking into a literal video game with illustrated on-screen commands.
Closing off the 1990s with an oddly accurate, comic representation of hacking, Mike Judge's Office Space incorporated a scenario that amusingly referenced Superman 3. The scheme undertaken by our three white collar heroes is colloquially referred to as salami slicing and involves processing thousands of micro-transactions that skim one or two cents from accounts at a time. The ultimate simplicity of the hack is depicted in an amusingly accurate scene with our main characters simply slip a disk containing the bug into a computer.
Office Space inspired a generation of young hackers to try their hand at this mythologized movie scam. In 2008 a man was convicted of siphoning $50,000 from several brokerage companies by opening thousands of fake accounts and filling them with micro-deposits. The man was ultimately caught after it was discovered that some of the fake accounts were opened using the names of characters from the movie Office Space.
By the turn of the century, life was most certainly imitating art as a whole new generation of hackers raised on Hollywood hacking movies were starting to become active. As the 21st century took hold, hacking representations began to take on a different hue. Realism was starting to become more important as the battle between accuracy and entertainment reached a whole new level – as we'll see in our next installment of Hollywood and Hacking.