Hacking may be serious business but Hollywood doesn’t exactly have a great track record of bringing it to the silver screen. In an effort to make the process of gaining entry to secure computer systems sexy and cinematic, many movies have reduced hacker characters to fast-talking techno geeks who are capable of doing the impossible with a few strokes on their keyboard. While some of the following movies do actually have a fairly grounded take on hacking or use the concept to explore some big themes and issues, others offer a more absurd – but undeniably entertaining – approach to cyber crimes.
10. Swordfish (2001)
Make no mistake, Swordfish is a silly movie. From John Travolta’s silly hair and goatee to the weird casting of Hugh Jackman as an infamous computer hacker, Swordfish is an over the top action movie which, like so many from the early 2000s, was all style over substance. However, it is highly watchable and deserves credit for trying to make hacking look as sexy and interesting as possible. One of Swordfish’s ‘big’ hacking scenes shows Jackman’s character creating a new type of computer worm. Surrounded by monitors and with techno music blaring in the background, Jackman types away manically and talks to himself as a silly GUI in the shape of a cube pieces itself together on one of the screens. It’s a daft scene but at least it makes hacking look cool.
9. Tron (1982)
Tron was the first movie to really explore the concept of hacking. After his video game ideas are stolen by a fellow co-worker, software engineer Flynn attempts to hack the company’s mainframe to find evidence that he has been wronged. However, he bites off more than he can chew when the mainframe takes on a mind of its own and he finds himself literally transported inside the system and forced to fight in a series of electronic gladiatorial games. Sure, being digitised into a mainframe and forced to fight against programs and other users in a digital world is a more ‘unconventional’ spin on hacking, but Tron was hugely influential and brought computers and arcade games into the mainstream.
8. eXistenZ (1999)
Forget about sitting at a keyboard typing code for hours on end; David Cronenberg’s approach to computers and technology is more hands on and much messier. Admittedly this cult sci-fi movie is more concerned with the idea of virtual reality than it is with hacking, but eXistenZ is required viewing for anyone looking for a change of pace from their cyber thrillers. Cronenberg imagines the ultimate immersion of technology where users plug into a digital interface via organic, umbilical game pods and bio ports, and the result is a gross, icky spin on getting lost in a gaming world.
7. Takedown (2000)
Takedown is a dramatisation of the investigation of real life computer hacker Kevin Mitnick. Once the most-wanted computer criminal in the United States, Mitnick went on the run after he hacked into Pacific Bell’s voice mail computers and he remained a fugitive from the FBI for more than 2 and 1/2 years. The real Mitnick later complained that the movie was extremely inaccurate and that he didn’t have a ‘cat and mouse’ rivalry with Tsutomu Shimomura, the computer security expert who helped the FBI catch him. Nevertheless, Takedown offers some pretty good insight into Mitnick’s methods and how he managed to get into so many secure systems with social engineering and good old fashioned dumpster diving.
6. Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Cult sci-fi anime Ghost in in the Shell offers a cyberpunk-inspired view of the future where technology has become so entrenched in everyday life that most people have cybernetically enhanced their bodies. The movie follows a cyborg intelligence team who are tasked with tracking down the Puppet Master; an elusive ‘ghost hacker’ who has the ability to take control of people’s cyberized bodies. The fast paced sci-fi deftly weaves big, complex philosophical themes with a hyperkinetic action style and offers a very different take on the concept of hacking.
5. The Social Network (2010)
A pivotal scene in the Social Network shows Facebook pioneer Mark Zuckerberg hacking into other college networks to download all the images of female students so he can create a ‘Hot or Not’ style website. Another scene shows Zuckerberg appraising potential interns with a hackathon where they have to gain entry to a secure web server and take a shot every time they write 10 lines of code. Although the rest of the movie is dedicated to the birth and rise of Facebook, these sequences have been praised for their realistic, no-nonsense approach to hacking as there’s no flashy GUI on the monitors and the characters don’t talk in needless, nonsensical techno babble.
4. Sneakers (1992)
Spy/hacker caper Sneakers may feel like a breezy affair, but many of its themes are remarkably prescient. Any filmmaker who prominently features technology in their movie has to resign themselves to the fact that in a decade or so it will look horribly dated. While this is the case with most of the tech in Sneakers, it’s surprising to see just how much the movie got right about the future of computing. The plot of Sneakers concerns a powerful decryption device which can break all codes and throughout the movie the NSA are desperately trying to get their hands on it. As speculated by one of the characters in the closing scenes, the NSA probably want it so that they can keep an eye on American citizens as well as other government agencies.
3. Hackers (1995)
Hollywood was paying attention to the rise of consumer computing and the Internet during the mid-90s and studios were keen to take advantage of this imminent technology boom. While some movies released during this time acted as fearful cautionary tales (like techno thriller the Net and to a lesser extent the trippy, Y2K panic of Strange Days), others embraced the absurdity of it all and really celebrated the future. Clearly inspired by the cyberpunk genre, Hackers is an off-the-wall and extremely 90s take on hacker counterculture. It’s hard to hate on the silliness of the plot – a group of young hackers are framed by a supervillain system administrator for creating a virus which will capsize an oil company’s tanker fleet – when the movie succeeds in making hacking seem cinematic and at building its own fantasy techno world inhabited by rollerblading, rave-happy teen hackers who take on big corporate..
2. Matrix (1999)
When hacker Neo is ‘woken up’ and discovers that reality as he knows it is in fact an digitally simulated world created by robots, he joins a group of fellow ‘unplugged’ humans who are leading a resistance against the machines. It’s easy to forget that under all the bullet time shootouts and kung fu fights that the Matrix is at its core a hacker movie. Neo may change from from being a guy sat in front of his computer to an ass-kicking, leather clad superhero, but the central premise of the Matrix sees him and the rest of his group as malicious code that has jacked into the system to fight against sentient defensive programs (the agents). It’s just a much cooler way of doing things.
1. WarGames (1983)
Matthew Broderick’s character in WarGames is regarded as being an authentic representation of the ethos and spirit of early computer hackers. Broderick plays David Lightman, a bright but directionless high school student who prefers hacking into the school’s database to changes his grades rather than doing homework. One day while using his modem to scan other computers in the hopes of finding a local computer games company, David accidentally starts communicating with a sophisticated government AI system and almost starts World War III in the process. It’s remarkable how the character of David – an intelligent, unmotivated youth who hacks for fun and intrigue – still holds true for the hacking culture today, but the events of WarGames also foretold the harsh realities of interfering with unamused government computers and being threatened with very lengthy prison spells. Although the computer AI is way too ambitious for the time, other concepts featured in WarGames such as calling random numbers to try and get access to a modem and phreaking payphones were fairly accurate representations of hacking techniques during the 80s – in fact, the popularity of the movie inspired the term ‘war dialing’ (it was previously called ‘hammer dialing’). The release of WarGames also heightened government concerns about hacking and the capabilities that home computers had. Congress introduced six anti-hacking bills after its release and namechecked WarGames as the reason for doing so. Let’s face it, few movies can boast that they managed to influence the national security of one of the world’s leading superpowers.