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'Blackhat' Is a Gorgeous, Deeply Surreal Action Flick

In his new movie, director Michael Mann strips action-flick conventions down to their core elements and reconfigures them into something more abstract and visceral.

Blackhat opens with a POV shot of malware traveling from one computer to another, its snake-like digital movements ending in a crippling explosion at a Chinese power plant. Such sequences have been a tired staple of hacker movies for decades now, but Michael Mann's use of the device stands out for both his commitment—similar shots recur several times, with each lasting an uncomfortably long time—and his emphasis on the physical, real-world nature of virtual power. Code can really travel from one corner of the globe to another at an inhuman speed, and it really is capable of sending stock markets into disarray at a moment's notice. By reminding the viewer of this in such explicit detail, Mann never allows us to divorce ourselves from the reality of these fraught situations.


The film has a standard setup. Unknown entities have digitally infiltrated key systems in China (the power plant) and the United States (a stock exchange), necessitating cooperation between the two contentious governments. China's expert happens to have been MIT roommates with the genius responsible for the elegant code on which the current virus is based, a man named Hathaway who is, of course, currently in prison for prior cyber crimes. In what's proven to be a controversial decision, Chris Hemsworth (that's Thor to us mere humans) was cast as the preternaturally talented coder temporarily freed from prison, his Adonis physique the polar opposite of the basement-dwelling archetype.

Putting Hemsworth in the role helps link the physical and the digital, the corporeal and the virtual. Hathaway is a man of few words who types more than he speaks, and what few lines he delivers throughout Blackhat come straight out of the action-flick handbook. When, late in the film, he realizes the full extent of the convoluted plot he's up against, he actually mutters, "That's what you're doing, you son of a bitch" under his breath—an oft-repeated line in Mann's films.

The particulars of that plot are both vague and complex, not to mention incidental to the overall experience of the film. Mann strips action-flick conventions down to their core elements and reconfigures them into something more abstract and visceral. Shootouts and explosions are elevated to a higher plane through his raw aesthetic, which helps Blackhat operate on a level few other genre films even attempt. It's the kind of movie film theorists could only dream about a century ago.


That may sound odd, given how many critics have negatively pointed to the film's visual qualities, but Mann makes a truly convincing case for his use of digital. Many dismiss his aesthetic as low-grade, cell-phone quality, a reaction Mann all but encourages with dim lighting and a number of violent sequences filmed at night. But in drawing attention to the image itself, he makes what we're seeing feel less like a movie and more like something we might see on the news.

Yes, his images are far from pristine, but seeing a closeup of a criminal's hardened face as he guides a boat through the harbor reminds you of all the things that no other medium can achieve. A low score accompanies these sights, and brings Blackhat into the realm of the surreal at times, like a more action-oriented cousin to David Lynch's Inland Empire.

Mann has been making poetry in motion for most of his career, whether it be on the streets of Los Angeles in Heat and Collateral, or the sands of Miami in, well, Miami Vice. This is very much a globetrotting narrative, traveling between Hong Kong and America before finally arriving in Indonesia. These more outwardly "exotic" locales are no less conducive to Mann's increasingly avant-garde approach to filming humans in their unnatural settings. Everyone and everything blurs together into a sensory concoction that's as thrilling as it is confusing.

This is nowhere more evident than in the gloriously unrealistic climax, which sees Hathaway finally come face-to-face with his nemesis in the middle of a ceremonial procession. They're but two people among a thousand others, none of whom pay any mind to the two men trying to kill one another with whatever makeshift weapons they've managed to conceal under their clothing. It isn't the most devastating thud of violence in the film—that's a sequence beginning with a rocket launcher and ending in several unceremonious deaths—but it is the most gallery-ready image in a film already brimming with them.

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