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Recently I had the pleasure of introducing my favourite hacker movie, Hackers, at my favourite hacking festival, Electromagnetic Field Camp. For those unaware, director Iain Softley’s 1995 flick is a smörgåsbord of colourful CGI insanity, roller skates, neon, funky haircuts, and spandex. At one point in the movie, the main villain, a corrupt computer security officer with a corrupt computer security officer goatee, grabs a floppy disk from a hacker before skateboarding away through a misty New York City street.
You can now imagine how excited I was to not only introduce the movie with a small speech, but interview the director on stage after the screening, all in front of the best possible crowd: hundreds of fellow geeks simultaneously shouting “HACK THE PLANET!” in an enormous, overflowing main stage tent. You can watch the full interview here:
So just why is this quirky movie, with a 32 percent Rotten Tomatoes score, so popular? Those outside of hacker culture may think that it’s an ironic cult hit, enjoyed much like The Room for its awfulness. Except Hackers is far from awful, and it’s certainly not enjoyed ironically.
In an effort to more fully understand and explain how Hackers has attained such high status and influence amongst computer experts and hacker culture in general, I’ve gathered some thoughts from a few of those very experts.
Darren Martyn - Security Consultant
“It’s quite possibly the single greatest hacker film known to hackerkind. With its psychedelic visualizations of ‘Cyberspace,’ absolutely banging soundtrack containing greats such as the Prodigy and Orb, amongst others, a completely hilarious plotline, witty dialogue, and penchant for not taking itself seriously whatsoever while also making multiple somewhat accurate references to hacker culture—it provides some excellent quality entertainment. This is in stark contrast to the more modern 'hacker' film—e.g. Blackhat, which was basically an action movie with some vague plotline involving some kind of computers.”
March - information security expert, ‘The Rootkit Wizard’
“I like Hackers because, while being typically fantastical Hollywood stuff, it is actually relatively grounded in what hackers could do: playing with building automation systems to turn on sprinklers, hacking a mainframe, etc. Of course, it’s totally framed in psychedelic neon cyberpunk visuals, but that's cool in itself. It also is one of the films that portrays hackers in a pretty good light—kids having fun, not being particularly evil, with the villain being an evil corporate turncoat white hat. Not to mention the soundtrack…bloody amazing.”
Paul Tagliamonte - software engineer, Debian developer
“ Hackers is one of those films that has not only stood the test of time, but gotten better with every passing year. I think the reason why it's only got better is because they didn't really try to get the technology right, (they were busy lifting the plot of Superman III), rather, they spent time and effort making the cultural aspect a pretty in-tune caricature. By exaggerating the community, it's turned into the nerdy version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, complete with Hackers themed watch parties. The plot of Hackers is pretty tired, and the technology is pretty wrong, but none of that matters because everyone's busy yelling out catchphrases.
I have no question the Mr. Robots of the world will stand up in 20 years in a similar way (to a smaller extent, we saw this with the Matrix Reloaded, where Trinity hacked the power grid using a ssh exploit that was correct for the year) because of the attention to detail on the technology, but Hackers stands alone because it nailed the culture in such a unique way.”
Holly Graceful - penetration tester, security researcher
“The movie is filled with obscure quotations that every hacker holds dear. I’m talking about quotations like “There’s an Olympic sized swimming pool on the roof.” and not that time Dade’s Mom noticed his excessive computer use and presumed he was gay, asking “You do like girls, don’t you?” or the horrific “Leather, lace and water sports. Transvestites welcome.”
Hackers is a movie that delivers Hollywood drama in the form of black magic style hacking, references to social engineering, hacking, phreaking, dumpster diving, hilarious handles, malicious software and MIT Nightwork. Plus more law enforcement raids on computer nerds bedrooms than I could count. Overall I would rate the movie Hackers and its performing cast as: very impressive, superhero-like even.”
[Holly’s full review of Hackers can be found published here!]
Art Of The Unseen - Open Web Fellow, Privacy International
“I'm interested in cyber physical effects of hacking. Everyday people used to think I was crazy before Stuxnet, that the internet was only virtual and the harm could only be virtual. There's a scene in Hackers that illustrates my point: when Crash sets the sprinklers off. Not only is he not at the keyboard when it happens (because computers can be timers), but he also is causing a lot of water damage to the school and people's property. When he puts that umbrella up and walks away, it illustrates my life's work in a single scene. The internet isn't virtual, and in fact, it never was. It has real world impact for good or for ill, and as we all grow up, we will continue to understand that our actions on the internet have consequences in the real world, and farther into the future than we imagine.”
Cal Leeming - Founder & Security Advisor
“As a young hacker, at the age of 10, I was completely mesmerized by this film. It exposed me to a culture that I didn't even know existed and opened my eyes to the world. Of course, I'd later learn that much of the film was so far beyond realistic that it was laughable, but it would still play a vital role in my childhood and have a continuing impact throughout my life. Every year or two I will watch it again, and notice something new that I didn't see before, and I've watched it maybe 20-30 times in total. In 2015, I travelled to London with a friend to watch the 20th anniversary screening at Prince Charles cinema. Almost everyone in my computing social group has seen this movie, and speak of it with a familiar fondness. It came as somewhat as a surprise to hear Iain Softley talk about how the film was produced and his own thoughts on what impact it had. The film may not be factually accurate, but for me it has the very essence of what hacking really is, camaraderie, wars, music, emotion and staying awake until 5am breaking into systems, with some well placed references to Orwell 1984, indeed it's a typo. Many of these attributes have followed me into my adult life, hacking will forever be in my blood and this film will stay in my heart.”