One day, tracking shots that slalom through a maze of computer chips will be as dated as spinning newspapers, or the morse-code trails left by airplanes across maps in 1930s serials. For now we have “Blackhat”, the new cyber-thriller about hacking, a subject Hollywood has been trying to get right ever since 1995, when Sandra Bullock ordered pizza online and accidentally tapped her way into an FBI mainframe in “The Net”. From its opening, in which an anonymous hacker brings down the cooling system of a Chinese nuclear plant, “Blackhat” announces itself as an ineffably superior beast, full of sotto-voce chatter about malware, remote-access trojans and edge routers, shots of pulsing dots swimming through fibre-optic cables, and reluctant male warriors offering their profiles against pixillated cityscapes suggestive of capitalism’s last stand. In other words, it’s a Michael Mann movie.
Our reluctant male warrior is Nicholas Hathaway, a hacker languishing in a high-security prison for relieving some banks of $46m. He is soon sprung by a US-Chinese coalition keen to use his expertise to track down the other hacker—much like Hannibal Lecter in “Manhunter”, Mann’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’s “Red Dragon”. Lecter was played with cerebral suavity by Brian Cox. Hathaway is played by super-hunk Chris Hemsworth, last seen swinging his hammer as Marvel’s “Thor”, a bold move by Mann against the stereotyping of nerds as overweight mole people. Whether audiences will buy what they get instead—200lb of ripped Australian, whose bookshelves include Foucault and Derrida and who pounds away at his keyboard with his shirt open three buttons to show an acreage of even tan—will depend on how sun-kissed they will allow a jailed computer hacker to be.
There has been talk of “Blackhat” as Mann’s “Marnie”—meaning that his Svengali instincts come a cropper on the hard, lumpen clay of simple miscasting. Certainly, the days when Mann hung his masculine mythos around the shoulders of Day-Lewis, De Niro and Pacino are to be missed—but this is a problem the movies have with computer technology as a whole. Only rarely is Hemsworth seen at a keyboard, as if fearing the intangibility of hacking itself; at one point he sweeps the whole computer off the table in a rage (try it the next time your password is denied) and seems mightily relieved to say, “this move is going to have to be low-tech” before jumping in a helicopter to jack his elbow into multiple Adam’s apples in a Korean restaurant. As Viola Davis, playing a DA, puts it, “Is that tangible enough for you?”
That’s the fear. Hollywood has much the same fascination for computer technology that it once nursed for television, or video-tape, pegging it somewhere between technological white knight and agent of the apocalypse. The studios fear the changing shape of the business, towards ever smaller screens, digital projection, home entertainment—but can’t figure out what aspects of human behaviour computers have changed, how much the plots need to adjust. Cyber-thrillers too often turn out to be boa-constrictors swallowing an egg. All you end up with is movies like “The Net”, or “Disclosure”, or “Firewall”—egg-shaped boa constrictors. Among modern directors, only David Fincher seems capable of showing someone at a keyboard without having them either (a) mutter what they are typing aloud, (b) guess extremely visible passwords in massive fonts, or (c) yell lines like “Extinguish the firewall!” or “They’ve stolen the internet!”
Actually, I suspect Hollywood has figured out what aspects of human behaviour computers have changed but doesn’t like the answer: we talk more and meet less. It’s enough to wilt the celery of any franchise-bound executive, his heart beating time to the thudding rhythms of the action movie. French cinema, OK, but American? Maybe that’s why many of the best films to catch the digital ripple in human affairs have been directed by foreigners—Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, Christopher Nolan’s “Inception”—and why they haven’t explicitly had computers as their subject. Rather, they are dramas of human consciousness which, together with Spike Jonze’s “Her”, catch the solipsism and melancholy of the digital age like an echo.
In some ways this is a perfect fit for Mann, whose work, while lifting action movies to epic dimensions—his masterpiece, “Heat”, shot downtown LA the way John Ford used to shoot Monument Valley—centres on men pinned moodily into their solitude by super-close-ups, or framed against megacities like God’s Loneliest Gunslinger. In “Blackhat”, Mann boxes his warriors into a tunnel in which every fusillade of gunfire sounds like the thunder of Zeus himself—and then frees them on rooftops, where they experience transient love scenes against night-time cityscapes shot with a digital camera that brings up the grain of the image until flesh tones mingle with street lights, as in a Seurat.
It’s almost cinematic pointillism. At such times, the opacity of Mann’s plot falls away like flesh from the bone to reveal older rhythms, ancient strengths. The final reel feels tribal, featuring nothing more hi-tech than a hammer and screwdriver driven into chest and skull. Beats a harshly worded e-mail, I suppose.
Blackhat opens in Britain Feb 20th. Out now in America