By the mid-’90s, pop culture had begun to assimilate concepts of both the internet and hackers. The former was a William Gibsonesque cyberscape of almost-real science fiction, and the latter was imagined as savants armed with mythic abilities to gain access to any computer system. 1995’s Hackers imagined this world, and in superficial ways distilled Hollywood’s inability to realistically capture technology. By trying to transform real technologies and subcultures into something cinematic, authenticity is diluted and the results are awkward and ridiculous. Case in point: Hackers’ two tag lines are “Their only crime was curiosity” and “Boot up or shut up.” The first slogan is clearly false, and the second tries to sound vaguely computer-ish, while making zero sense.
But why, despite what seems like painfully overwrought depictions of networks, servers, and hacking parties, does Hackers endure as a beloved cult film? In conjunction with How Did This Get Made? podcast series, /Film has created a companion series of articles that investigates the origins behind films like Hackers. Blake Harris uncovers the real-life origins of the hacker subculture, and discovers a surprising amount of authenticity that remains in the film. This is in counterpoint to 1992’s VR-horror story The Lawnmower Man, and the other “internet” films of 1995, including Johnny Mnemonic, The Net, and Virtuosity.
Rafael Moreu, the screenwriter for Hackers, began by spending time with Mark Abene, a real-life hacker who went by the handle Phiber Optik. The producers, similarly, spent time with the ostensible subjects of their film, absorbing the culture. Even the actors and the hackers interviewed show a genuine affinity for one another, finding common ground in recreating a fictionalized version of Abene’s tribe.
The culture of camaraderie that pervades Hackers seems ported straight from Abene’s life experiences, which posit that the ’90s hacking culture was not unlike ’90s skateboarding culture. Practitioners formed a tribal bond, and as mainstream culture tried to marginalize both groups, the act of breaking into a system became analogous to skaters trespassing onto padlocked property to access a drained swimming pool.
In fact, much of the film seems to retain the source experiences, with one major exception: trying to make the visually empty experience of computer prompts convey excitement on screen. As a result, the code towers seen in the film were mandated by the producers. And while the producers interviewed seem to remember the constructs quite fondly, the effects do help contribute to Hackers being squeezed by conflicting pressures. One the one hand, the weirdly slapdash fashion notes and payphone obsession give the film an (extremely dated) authenticity. On the other hand, the film’s attempt to bridge the current state of technology with a future vision is completely wrong-headed, using effects that date equally fast. But while Hackers failed in the box office, it wasn’t for a lack of earnestness; blame that on fear-mongering, lazy potboilers like The Net. Buried underneath the rash guards, terrible haircuts, and silly code towers is a relatable story about kids using technology to create their own sense of community, which is probably why, two decades later, we’re still talking about Hackers as a beloved cult flop, but not Virtuosity.