Our current Movie of the Month, 1992’s Sneakers, is a mainstream thriller about elite hackers played by middle-aged movie stars instead of teenage Mall Goths. As a “cyberpunk” thriller about elite early-internet hackers, it is absurdly un-hip. I’ve come to expect my movie hackers to be young, androgynous perverts dressed in glossy patent leather, not near-geriatric celebrities who tuck in their shirt-tails. However, as a big-budget Dad Movie that plays with 90s-specific cyberterror anxieties, I found it solidly entertaining. It feels like a dispatch from a bygone studio filmmaking era when movie stars actually drove ticket sales, so that their importance on the screen is stressed way more than directorial style or production design – which are slick enough here but deliberately avoid calling attention to themselves. Even among the movie’s biggest fans, I get the sense that it satisfies most as a comfort watch steeped in nostalgia for that era, right down to the clunkiness of its landline phones and desktop computers.
I appreciate Sneakers‘s appeal as a star-studded studio thriller, but I personally prefer my Evil Technology movies to be just a smidge goofier, sexier, or more stylistically over the top. Thankfully there are plenty of trashier, less reputable 90s thrillers about computer hackers to choose from. Here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month but want to see something a little less sensible.
The Net (1995)
For something just a smidge goofier than Sneakers that still sticks to the mainstream star-vehicle format, I’d recommend the much-mocked but highly entertaining The Net. The Net stars Sandra Bullock as a loner computer hacker, vulnerable to attack because she’s friendless in the world. Watching Bullock’s slovenly hacker eat junk food & code in her “cyberchat” computer dungeon really pushes her Sweetheart Next Door onscreen persona into absurdly unbelievable territory. Bullock’s inability to lose herself in a role comes hand in hand with movie star celebrity, a suspension of disbelief audiences are willing to accommodate because we love seeing these megastars perform, Everyday Sweethearts or no. It’s the same suspension of disbelief that asks us to buy a middle-age Robert Redford as the hippest computer genius on the planet or Dan Ackroyd as a Mall Goth conspiracy theorist, when more reasonable casting would’ve skewed younger or nerdier.
Besides Bullock’s natural star power & effortless charm, The Net’s main draw for modern audiences is its glimpse at 1990s era fears & misunderstandings of online culture, which is pushed to a much goofier extreme than the standard political thriller beats of Sneakers. The film’s main conflict involves an encrypted floppy disc that hackers are willing to murder Bullock’s online slob to obtain, exploiting then-contemporary audiences’ fears of the vulnerability of digitally stored information. Characters anxiously explain the vulnerability of our “electronic shadow” in a world where “our entire lives are in the computer,” waiting to be hacked. The film’s tagline bellows, “Her driver’s license. Her bank account. Her credit card. Her identity. DELETED.” Most of The Net‘s basic thriller elements derive from Bullock’s helplessness in the face of this online identity persecution limiting her mobility & capital as she protects the McGuffinous floppy disc. On the sillier end, there are also primitive AOL-era emojis, in-dialogue explanations of terms like “IRL” (all-caps), and exchanges like “You’re hacker too?,” “Isn’t everybody?,” to help color The Net as a so-bad-it’s-good early Internet relic.
Where The Net truly gets good for me is in its lack of confidence that its chosen subject is sufficiently cinematic. Unsure audiences will bother reading online chatroom text to themselves, Bullock’s computer “helpfully” reads out the chatter in exaggerated robotic voice synthesizers. Discontented with merely displaying online data in matter-of-fact presentation, harsh music video edits & slashing sound cues are deployed to make computer readouts more “dynamic” (read: obnoxious). To add some explosive energy to the onscreen thrills, the film’s evil hacker syndicate graduate from hijacking online personal data to hijacking personal airplanes – essentially hacking victims to death in fiery crashes. It’s all deeply, incurably silly, a tone that only improves with time as its moment in tech becomes more obsolete. Whereas Sneakers molds a traditional, reasonable political thriller formula onto a 90s cyberterror setting, The Net goes out of its way to stress the contemporary gimmickry of his computer hacker plot to the point of delirium.
For something “sexier” than Sneakers, I’d point to the Michael Douglas erotic thriller Disclosure, which features the middle-age movie star in yet another deadly battle with a femme fatale who desperately wants to fuck him to death . . . this time with computer hacking! Douglas stars as a misogynist computer programmer whose daily sexist microaggressions are turned back on him a thousandfold by his new bombshell boss (and sexual harasser), played by Demi Moore. It literalizes the 90s-era War of the Sexes in the same queasy way all these mainstream erotic thrillers do, which you’re either going to be on board for or not. However, this particular example is flavored with an Early Internet tech obsession that includes wide-eyed wonder at cell phones, emails, video calls, and CD-ROMs – placing it in the same techno-espionage realm as Sneakers, just with the absurdity dialed to 11.
There is no actual, consensual sex in Disclosure, despite its erotic thriller patina. Most of the frank, adult conversations about sexuality are contained to legal mediations about the gendered nature of consent and power in the workplace. The actual computer hacking portion is also minimal in its screentime, but once it arrives it is a doozy. The climax of the film is staged in a Virtual Reality simulation of a filing cabinet in a digital hallway, with Michael Douglas frantically searching for confidential files while a Matrixed-out killbot version of Demi Moore systematically deletes them with VR lasers. Of all the examples of movies overreaching in their attempts to make computer hacking look visually dynamic and Cool, this is easily up there in the techno-absurdism Hall of Fame. It’s also lot more thrilling than it sounds on paper, depending on your taste for this kind of horned-up, technophobic trash.
And of course, no list of 90s computer-hacking thrillers would be complete without the over-styled, undercooked excess of 1995’s Hackers. When I was picturing my ideal version of Sneakers—young perverts in fetish gear throwing around the word “elite” as if it were the ultimate honor—I’m pretty sure I was just picturing Hackers . . . a film I had never seen before. Whereas Sneakers is careful to present its corporate espionage computer hacking in a reasonable, rational context that’s careful not to deviate too far from the mainstream thriller norm, Hackers fully commits to its Computer Hacking: The Movie gimmickry. Jonny Lee Miller stars as a child hacker (alias Zero Cool) who has to lay low after being convicted for hacking into the systems of major American banks, then emerges as a hip teen hacker (new alias Crash Override) who’s pinched for a similar corporate espionage crime he did not commit. Will he and his elite-hacker friends be able to out-hack their evil-hacker enemies to clear their names before they’re sent to prison? Who cares? The real draw here is the rapid-edit visualizations of computer hacking in action, wherein Zero/Crash closes his eyes and zones out to psychedelic clips of vintage TV shows & pop culture ephemera while his hands furiously clack away at his light-up keyboard, techno constantly blaring in the background.
Is it possible to be nostalgic for something while you’re watching it for the first time? Hackers has everything I want in movies: tons of style, no substance, mystical visualizations of The Internet, wet dreams about crossdressing, Matthew Lillard, etc. In the abstract, I recognize that Sneakers is technically the better film, but its competence keeps it from achieving anything half as fun or as surreal as this 90s-teen derivative. I very much appreciated Sneakers as is, but I spent its entire runtime re-imagining it as my ideal version of a 90s computer-hacking thriller . . . only to later discover that Hackers already is that exact ideal. It’s, without question, the most ridiculous and most essential film in this set. Hack the planet!