Computer geeks and hackers are an increasingly common breed in Hollywood films these days, having come a long way from their early appearances in features of the 1980′s such as Tron (1982). There were titles like Wargames (1983), Real Genius (1984), and Weird Science (1985), aimed mainly at teenage audiences, in which young computer geniuses, sometimes alienated from the popular crowd in their social lives, nonetheless used their skills like a type of magic to realise their fantasies.
Then, in the 1990′s the web became a more mainstream technology and the types of audiences Hollywood tried to reach with hacking-themed films expanded. The main development here was that whereas earlier films used computer abilities as a sort of ‘special power’ possessed by shy but gifted teenagers, we now started to see thrillers such as The Net (1995), Enemy of the State (1997), and The Matrix (1999) in which computer systems and the web became synonymous with the threat of entrapment, invasion of individual privacy, and state surveillance – harnessed by a variety of malevolent agents and those fighting against them.
While being popular with teenage audiences (The Matrix especially), these films also signalled that motifs of hackers, geeks, and the web were becoming increasingly versatile and useful in Hollywood, branching out into larger budget productions and multiple genres. We also started to see small changes in the conventions of certain genres and their variants taking these developments into account.
So for example, the so-called ‘heist’ or ‘caper’ movie, in which a team of assorted characters are assembled for a daring but illegal/dangerous act of theft or mischief (the Ocean’s 11, 12, and 13 films are a good recent example of this well-established format) now features as standard a computer expert/hacker who will navigate and battle with challenges presented by computerised security systems. Examples in this category include Swordfish (2001) and The Italian Job (2003).
Another increasingly common motif makes use of a scenario in which entertainment formats which dominate virtual worlds (such as first person shooter computer games) are somehow transferred into ‘real’ life. This might include examples such as eXistenZ (1999) or Gamer (2009). Again, themes of surveillance, erosion of privacy and freedom, and voyeurism are strongly engaged.
Ultimately, technology and gadgets have been a staple feature of some of Hollywood’s most long-established genres and franchises for decades – especially variants of the thriller (sci-fi, espionage etc). Unsurprisingly it is now these films which make the greatest use of hacking and computer wizardry having easily incorporated them within their established structures.
There was a brief period, when the internet was only a fledgling technology, when hacking/computer geeks were mainly to be found in a hybrid format of the teen movie in which young adults faced tribulations of social hierarchies in high school, sexual frustration, struggles against older authority figures representing the establishment/status quo – perhaps a result of the fact that Hollywood producers felt that it was only this teen demographic who even knew what the web was, and for whom the concepts would hold an interest.
However, we now tend to see the web and hacking mainly as a staple of the thriller genre and the films in which a naive kid also doubles up as a whizz hacker seem less common. In the currently evident dominant tropes of web and hacking, the internet is conceived as an ever present grid in which power struggles play out, one way or another, depending on various factors – one of which is computing ability. It therefore becomes a space of dramatic action for the thriller genre, in the same way that a road often is (think car chases etc).
Just as martial arts sequences often feature a battle of abilities between competing specialists, so too hacking is another specialised skill which has been added to the list of commonly found ones used to solve problems in thriller films (just like those of fast driving, accurate shooting, martial arts, insightful deduction etc).
Moreover, one of the consequences of the fact that hacking and the web tends to feature in Hollywood mainly within these types of films is that there is a strong focus on some of the more sinister aspects of the web – it is a network which connects us, and makes us vulnerable to, others – including those more powerful than us (either in the form of a government or state, or otherwise a malevolent individual with superior computing abilities).
The flipside is that this also opens up a new arena for one of Hollywood’s favourite narrative arcs – the triumph of the less numerous and less resourced (but morally superior) against the mighty but corrupt (David & Goliath basically). Hacking is the skillset that enables this trajectory to play out in various recent thrillers, being as it is often a solitary activity and one in which singular but gifted individuals are genuinely capable of causing serious damage to much larger and more powerful organisations or adversaries.
Indeed, this type of hacking motif might just be Hollywood’s most credible vehicle for staging this narrative trajectory. I can think of few real-world situations in which a single combatant has single-handedly outwitted and defeated an army – yet I see it on a weekly basis in Hollywood cinema. Meanwhile, when it comes to hacking, I can recall numerous examples where a sole individual was genuinely able to cause an astonishing level of either damage, embarrassment, or nuisance to an entity much more powerful than them in the offline world.
One final thing which I will say is that there is one thing that has not changed much over the thirty or so years that Hollywood has been making use of hacking and the web as a major conceptual or narrative device: the challenge of making someone typing at a keyboard seem visually engaging has never gone away and it is with regard to this aspect that most films about computers and hacking end up looking quickly dated or ridiculous. For every interesting solution to this audio-visual challenge (The Matrix’s vertically running code for instance) there are about ten very daft examples (such as the bizarre virtual space of Hackers that looks like someone just filmed a Windows media player visualiser).