My Three Stages of Hackers

If there was ever a movie that I feel like I should hate but simply cannot bring myself to do so, it would be Hackers. The 1995 movie, inspiring in me a love for Jonny Lee Miller, Matthew Lillard and Angelina Jolie, is a fun-house mirror version of computer crime and network interaction. Everywhere there could be a logical interface, some sort of basic telnet love or proxy hacking or even AOL shoutout, there instead is this cartoonish, colorful, impossible display of flame and happy faces and swirling towers (whose greatest feat is that they make 1995's AOL sound like a logical interface). Where there should be dedicated, introspective geeks, there are hip kids with cool shades and attention-deficit disorders. No one who owns a computer is overweight, has a skin condition, or a social phobia. A miracle, I tell you! But the truth is easy to understand: this is not a movie about hackers, or crackers, or programmers, or computer geeks. This is a movie about some alternate dimension that we do not know of, and I find myself drawn to it, owning it on DVD and VHS, watching it over and over, and loving it.

There were three general stages to my membership in the Hackers cult. The first was when I was back in Evergreen. The last time I had significantly touched a computer was probably about 1988 (the date this movie opens in, coincidently). Then, 7-8 years later, after tooling around briefly on computers in public labs and whatnot, I get a glimpse into this world where geeks are bad asses that rule the universe. Sure, I should have realized that the technology made no sense, that computer monitors don't refresh at instataneous speeds and that large flaming letters don't crawl across a screen in some mystical semblance of a divine text message complete with sound effects. I should have, but for some reason did not even notice it. I just watched the movie and was enthralled.

Over time, as I got back into computers more and more, my rewatchings started getting pained. "Dude, I hacked the Gibson!" following a scene somewhere between a 1993 edition of Microsoft Flight Simulator and Tron just grated my nerves. One day a friend told me that he hated computers because he should be able to tell it something like "Make a skyline and put some clouds up in the sky and trees on the horizon," and it should be able to do just that with him doing nothing else. He felt the concept of programming elitist and boring. Amazed, I was, at his attitude, his demanding of real world results based on a fantasy. Then, of course, I realized that movies like Hackers, in which a man slaps his hands down on a keyboard and up pops random art bits and programs, were responsible.

I didn't watch it for a couple of years. I felt irritated by it. I wasn't even a computer geek. I was a philospher, physicist, poet, book lover who just happened to use his computer to get things done. I just felt slighted by it. Hackers was that part of Hollywood that I could not take.Then, stage three kicked in. I watched it again. It was either on cable or I put in my old VHS. And then I realized that no matter how bad it was at actually portraying anything, it was still a movie that I adored. I mean, come on: Lord Nikon and Cereal Killer? "Spandex, it's a privilege, not a right"? Jonny Lee Miller in a dress? Wow. It is campy, inaccurate as hell, and really unevenly acted. But this movie is a part of my childhood. It made me appreciate computers more, not less. It is quotable, sometimes for the wrong reasons, and it has a fun cast.

Watching it tonight (April 12, 2008) I found even more silliness. They hack a man's back account by typing his name into a search box that uses huge fonts and asked for no other information. The hacker knows of the NSA Trusted Networks book, but fails to name Peter Norton in his ugly pink shirt? The security guard (Penn!) looks at a large display that apparently includes the password of the current user? In HUGE letters? And this user, just browsing files at random, is burning up ten times the amount of RAM as standard? This means that a file browswer is ten times more RAM intensive as the standard application being run in that business? Ah, that's crazy talk.

Really, though, Hackers is about computers in the same way that Dodgeball is about competetive sports. They definitely show up. They are tied into the plot. There are some good things said about them. But we are here to watch a menagerie of actors act out characters that we can play along with. If they had been rogue mechanics fighting some large car factory across town, we would have fallen right in step. Because we want to see Sick Boy score with Lara Croft. Well, maybe you didn't, but I sure did. And we wanted to see Shaggy act a nut. And we wanted ot see Tin-Tin uses his photographic memory save the day.

My final verdict, after what must be my twentieth, at least, watching? Damned entertaining flick. Damned quotable. Friendly. Completely crap in so many ways, but it will always be one of my favorite movies. I'm a sucker for it, I guess.

Stage three is a good stage to be in, here. I like it.

Written by W Doug Bolden

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