Hacking has rarely been out of the news for some time now, and where there’s a topic in the eye of journalists, there are films of dubious real-world accuracy to accompany them.
The thing about hacking in Hollywood is that its interpretation by screenwriters is about as accurate as you might expect from a child or OAP. These digital outsiders tend to think “hacking” someone’s Hotmail account consists of guessing their secret question(s) and changing their password. Big deal, right?
Hollywood, conversely, has some utterly hilarious interpretations of hacking, and I think they’re worth highlighting. I wish my file system worked like a visualisation of a series of giant 3D blocks I had to navigate, but alas, it’s just OSX.
Talking of giant 3D blocks, your first stop should be Jurassic Park. Admittedly, its focus is most definitely not on hacking, but it’s got a few amazingly bizarre computer-use sequences that have to be seen to be believed. The really slick, Tron-like visuals Lex (Ariana Richards) has to navigate to access the park’s computer system despite using a computer with a fairly ugly 90s-era OS is surreal at best. Definitely one for the books.
After that, you’re going to want to delve in properly to the ludicrousness of movie hacking. That’s where Independence Day comes in. The issue here is that for some reason, a computer virus manufactured using human technology is somehow completely compatible with, and dangerous to, an alien computer system. I can’t even get a .exe file to run on a Macbook, but Will Smith somehow manages to screw over an invading alien force with a bit of malware. Jog on.
WarGames isn’t exactly much cop either, when it comes to authenticity, given Ferris Bueller has managed to hack into NORAD and let it play tic-tac-toe against itself. But before you claim that an artificial intelligence wouldn’t conclude that war is wrong and stop fighting, there was recently theorised in a gamer tale of dubious legitimacy featuring AI bots in the videogame Quake III Arena, who don’t attack each other because they concluded the only way to stay alive is to stay passive.
I’ve tried, but I can’t go any further without talking about Hackers. It’s the definitive hacking film to come out of Hollywood, and it’s absolutely brilliant from start to finish. I can’t fault it on an entertainment scale, as it contains everything from dinky little hacker netbooks to cool hair, clothes, and a really great fictional culture where hackers are a wonderful alternative society of those who think rules are challenges. Not too different from real life, but the actual hacking in the film is, well, ridiculous, to the point where actual hackers hacked the film’s website to decry its depiction of what they do. It’s still a great film, though.
The reality is that you could easily make a realistic hacker film, and probably base it around Anonymous, or Lulzsec. But they don’t wear crazy outfits, or use 3D visualisation – they’re sat in front of a terminal window, typing away quietly, while hanging out anonymously in IRC (internet relay chat). It’s not the most interesting thing to watch, unless you were to splice in footage of the utter chaos they can cause in the real world. There’s Hollywood’s problem – people doing things that aren’t particularly emotive or physically active aren’t that interesting.
But unfortunately for the suits and writers in Hollywood, as time goes on and people become increasingly tech-savvy, and believable IT use in cinema becomes more problematic. One of the issues with tech is compatibility, as I mentioned earlier – there’s always going to be someone in a cinema going “wait? what?” when someone plugs a scanner into an iPod or uses a foil wrapper to give someone free mobile calls for life. Audiences aren’t as wowed by technology as they used to be, and it’s going to become a problem for screenwriters who are about as familiar with unauthorised entry into a foreign computer system as they are with repairing jet engines.
But for now, there are a fair few gems, and the articles I’ve linked to have big lists that are worth watching sheerly for the “oh my god, you cannot be serious” moments. But for now, it’s worth making the choice of either reading into the topic and seeing behind the veil, or simply kicking back and enjoying the entertainment value of fiction that launches into science fiction without a moment’s notice. Although, in a film that’s already about resurrecting dinosaurs on a secret island, it’s probably worth ignoring some weird depictions of hacking.