Bonus Features: Sneakers (1992)

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.

Disclosure (1994)

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.

Hackers (1995)

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!

-Brandon Ledet

The Net (1995)

There was a stunning late-2018 phenomena in the week between Christmas and New Year’s where everyone in my immediate social & professional circles who normally don’t care at all about movies suddenly cared a lot about one movie in particular: Bird Box. The absurd, instantaneous ubiquity of Bird Box‘s online premise caused on uproar of memes, then memes about those memes, then conspiracy theories about where the memes came from in the first place. Whether Bird Box‘s cultural moment was manufactured by the Netflix advertising machine or it was a genuine response to a widely available genre film with a flashy premise, its sudden online omnipresence was a great reminder to watch another Sandra Bullock vehicle that had been sitting unwatched on my shelf for months: the 1995 cyberthriller The Net. I don’t know that there ever was a time when The Net dominated online culture in proto-meme ridicule the way Bird Box hijacked everyone’s brain for 72 hours, but wild internet conspiracy theories about Bird Box‘s marketing had a distinct Net-ish flavor to it anyway. To put it in 1995 terms, Bird Box Week was a terrifying time when America got hacked by an elite group of cyberterrorists – Netflix’s marketing department.

The most convincing argument that Bird Box‘s instantaneous online success was a natural occurrence instead of an algorithm “hack” job is that Sandra Bullock is just that much of a draw. Curiously enough, that exact argument is what makes the basic premise of The Net so ludicrously unconvincing. Sometime in the 1990s audiences (and well-compensated PR teams) unanimously crowned Julia Roberts as America’s Sweetheart, only for that position to quickly trickle down to Sandra Bullock sometime around the release of Miss Congeniality (and, arguably, later to Reese Witherspoon). As one of America’s Official Sweethearts, Bullock is often cast as an everyday Plain Jane in roles she is far too beautiful & vibrantly charismatic to pull off. I’ve never seen a more preposterous version of that dissonance than in The Net, where Bullock plays a friendless loner slob computer hacker, vulnerable to attack because she’s alone in the world. Watching Bullock slovenly eat junk food & code in her “cyberchat” computer dungeon really pushes her Sweetheart Next Door onscreen persona into surreally unbelievable territory. That inability to lose herself in a role comes hand in hand with movie star celebrity, though – a suspension of disbelief audiences are willing to accommodate because we love seeing these megastars perform, Everyday Sweethearts or no.

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. I feel like I already blather until I’m hoarse about how user-interface cyberthrillers like Unfriended, Cam, Nerve, and #horror are documenting online culture & tech textures in a way more “respectable” cinema wouldn’t dare; The Net is only further proof how invaluable that will be after just a few years’ time. The film’s main conflict involves an encrypted floppy disc that elite hackers are willing to murder Bullock’s online slob to obtain, exploring 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 MacGuffinous floppy disc. Just as important as those loud, overwhelming shouts of digitized culture fearmongering, though, are the documentation of more grounded, everyday online activities as Bullock frantically types away on her ancient PC.

Of course, all of this alarmist documentatarian focus on mid-90s internet culture often opens up the film to being outright silly, charmingly so. Primitive AOL-era emojis, in-dialogue explanations of terms like “IRL” (all-caps), and exchanges like “You’re hacker too?,” “Isn’t everybody?,” color The Net as a so-bad-it’s-good early Internet relic. A lot of that ridicule is overexaggerated, such as a much-mocked scene where Bullock orders food delivery from the fictitious Pizza.Net that more or less predicted the Domino’s online delivery app a decade in advance, as if this were prescient sci-fi instead of a ludicrously dated thriller. 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.

Without its Evil Internet gimmick and the America’s Sweetheart charisma of Sandra Bullock, The Net would have a dime-a-dozen quality in 90s thriller terms. I assume the same could be said of Bird Box‘s respective gimmick, sight unseen (pun intended). There’s much worse a thriller could do to grab your attention than exploit a preposterous high-concept scenario & employ a surefire box office star, though. For instance, it could flood the internet with fake accounts & preloaded memes or hack your VOD platform to set its front-page autoplay on loop to inflate its own viewing numbers, boosting its profile. If The Net had taught me anything, it’s that nothing is unhackable and nothing online is to be trusted, not even Pizza.Net.

-Brandon Ledet