Cyberwar Deserves a Better Movie Than ‘Blackhat’
Hollywood can do better than Michael Mann’s anemic thriller
Cybercriminals steal millions of credit card numbers every year. Major retail outlets fall to cyberattacks every few months. And the biggest story over the holidays was North Korea’s alleged hacking of Sony to stop it from releasing The Interview.
So making a movie like Blackhat makes sense. Audiences are ready for a realistic film about hackers. People want to know about cyberthreats, and they’re ready for a movie to explain these complicated dangers in a sensible, understandable manner.
Too bad Blackhat is not that kind of film. It’s a mess, not a movie.
Michael Mann directed Blackhat. He’s famous for The Last of the Mohicans, Heat and Thief. If only this movie were anywhere near as exciting as any of those.
The movie takes its name from the slang term for cybercriminals. Good hackers are whitehats, and bad hackers are blackhats. These terms should be familiar to anyone who watches Westerns.
The movie opens in China. A nuclear reactor explodes after hackers infect it with malware. The blackhats attacked America too, but the hack failed.
The Chinese government sends Chen Dawai—played by Leehom Wang—to the United States, where he teams up with American authorities to chase down the blackhats.
Dawai picks up his sister to help. He also convinces the Justice Department to spring his incarcerated college roommate Nick Hathaway—played by a brooding and confused looking Chris Hemsworth—to help track down the baddies.
Hathaway is serving time for robbing banks. Cyber-robbing banks. But it was his code the hackers used to take down the nuclear reactor, so Washington cuts a deal. If he catches the blackhat, the government will commute his sentence.
The movie—already meandering and boring—loses all hope of forward motion once Dewai assembles his team of whitehats. These aren’t bad actors. They’ve just got a bad script. At times, Hemsworth seems embarrassed by his dialogue.
It also felt as if the studio forced reshoots, cut out pieces and rearranged them in an attempt to salvage the mess.
Why, for example, force a romantic subplot between Hathaway and Dewai’s sister? Why the urgent and rushed visit to the scene of the nuclear reactor halfway through the film? The characters act as if the accident just happened even though it opened the movie.
Blackhat is also the most accurate—though not completely correct—depiction of hacking and coding I’ve ever seen on film. And that’s a problem.
Cybergeeks will be happy the filmmakers know what a command line is. The characters use basic Linux commands and actually seem to type when they sit at the keyboard.
Actors throw out terms such as RAT and shell and almost seem like they understand what they’re saying. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than the weird hacking sequences in Swordfish, The Net … or Hackers.
But this half-assed devotion to depicting what actual hacking look likes is a mistake. It’s boring to watch. It doesn’t matter how sexy Hemsworth is—put him behind a laptop and let him type for five minutes and the audience’s mind wanders.
Boredom is Blackhat’s main problem. The film’s run-time is just under two hours, but it feels like an agonizing three.
Characters wander from scene to scene, talking around each other while throbbing ambient music grumbles under their dialogue. The camera wanders from side to side, and the color palette is overwhelmingly blue and gold.
It was like watching a film directed by David Fincher while he was trying to stay awake after drinking half a bottle of NyQuil.
Action sequences are the film’s one strength. The two gun battles are reminiscent of Mann’s Heat. Bullets slam into vehicles. Everyone moves like a military force in an actual urban assault. The scenes were gritty, real and riveting. Too bad they’re about 10 minutes of the total movie.
Films can enlighten as well as entertain. Each movie about war and fear is an opportunity for audiences to grapple with those broad themes and understand them a little better.
Cyber issues, especially, are growing more important every day. It’s a broad theme Hollywood needs to tackle. It can do a lot better than Blackhat.