Hollywood’s rather desperate leaps into the information age have included such recent computer-themed static as “Johnny Mnemonic,” “Virtuosity” and “The Net.” The latest cinematic entry in the cyberspace race is “Hackers,” a tale of young computer outlaws who turn out to be - surprise! - the good guys.
You can’t really blame the movie industry for trying to chase a trend, but there’s an obvious contradiction at the heart of all these computer films:
Motion pictures are about motion. Computers are about sitting at a keyboard.
No director is likely to shout: Lights, camera, typing!
There may not be a solution to this problem, although there are ways around it.
“WarGames” of 1983 - still the best of the cyber-flicks - focused on the action away from the computers, using keyboard-based footage very selectively. And it kept genuine human beings (as opposed to computer-generated creatures or cyber-brain freaks or Bill Gates) squarely at the emotional center of the story.
“Hackers” doesn’t solve the basic problem, and it doesn’t quite get around it either.
But at least the new film is a lot more playful and youthful than those other recent productions. And it’s the only one that appears to have been made by people who’ve taken the trouble to observe the effects of computer technology on the kids who’ve grown up with it.
Not that director Iain Softley (“Backbeat”) and screenwriter Rafael Moreu are at all academic or otherwise hifalutin concerning their subject.
It’s just that the personalities of the young hackers in this movie ring reasonably true: Despite a certain cartoonishness in the filmmakers’ style, you sense that there are teens in the real world who somewhat resemble the ones on the screen.
The top hacker in “Hackers” is Dade (Jonny Lee Miller), a high school student with a criminal past. Seven years before the main story begins, his hacking caused the biggest computer crash in history, and he has been on good (or, at least, noncriminal) behavior ever since.
Early in “Hackers,” Dade moves from Seattle to Manhattan, where his mother has taken a new job. He soon falls in with a group of young computer whizzes, including the tall, flaky (and very entertaining) Cereal Killer (Matthew Lillard), the wily Lord Nikon (Laurence Mason) and the beautiful, aloof Kate (Angelina Jolie), on whom Dade, of course, instantly develops a crush.
The villain is an adult, an evil computer genius called Plague (Fisher Stevens), whose motto is: “There is no right or wrong. There’s only fun and boring.” Plague and his accomplice, a computer-illiterate corporate exec (Lorraine Bracco), try to pin a cyber-crime on our young hacker heroes.
“Hackers” works best early on while we’re still getting to know all these people.
After the mechanics of the thriller plot start to kick in, the film drags. And when it’s time for the big cyber-showdown, we’re stuck, once again, with footage of frantic typing.
In movies, there is only fun and boring, and typing is always the latter.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “HACKERS” Location: Lincoln Heights, Newport and Showboat cinemas Credits: Directed by Iain Softley, starring Johnny Lee Miller, Angelina Jolie, Lorraine Bracco and Fisher Stevens Running time: 1:40 Rating: PG-13