Blackhat is an R-rated mystery-thriller with an emphasis in hacking and cybercrime. The villain opens the film by hacking into a Chinese nuclear reactor and instigating a crisis that almost results in a meltdown. Then he gets rich off soy stock by hacking into the New York Stock Exchange. It’s the obvious choice, really. From there, the Chinese and American governments decide to team up to track the attacker down, but soon must enlist the help of Nick Hathaway, an accomplished hacker serving 15 years in prison for his Robin Hood tendency of hacking into banks and redistributing their money, and also the original architect of the code that allowed the attacks to succeed.
Chris Hemsworth leads as Nick Hathaway, a hacker with enough skill to break into banks from a stolen phone in his prison cell. While studying at MIT, he designed the code (a Remote Access Tool) that allowed the attacks to succeed.
Leehom Wang stars as Chen Dawai, a Chinese military officer and expert on cyber security, as well as former roommate and best friend of Hathaway. Coauthored the RAT and convinces the FBI to release Hathaway to assist with the case. Clearly unbiased.
Wei Tang rounds out the main trio as Chen Lien, Dawai’s sister and Hathaway’s love interest. Brought along by her brother as a networks analyst, her computer skills are rarely used and she is, unfortunately, primarily there to ignite romantic tension and act as a useful sidekick.
On the other hand, Viola Davis does not accept any excuses as Carol Barrett, the FBI Agent in charge of the case who places the success of their mission over adhering to bureaucratic policies. And if you stand in her way, she will rip you apart.
Yorick van Wageningen portrays the hacker masterminding the attacks, a sociopath unconcerned about the death toll of his schemes. Richie Coster plays his bodyguard Kassar, a terrifying individual with numerous weapons, excellent aim, and cool efficiency, but an unfortunate weakness to screwdrivers.
Blackhat thrives on tone and atmosphere. The plot is fairly standard, at times contrived, and though the characters are enjoyable, they exist safely within the plot. The atmosphere, however, weighs across the whole film. For all but our heroes, justice takes a back seat to political tension and interdepartmental feuds. Viola Davis’ character seems under a constant weight, exhausted by the petty issues that get in the way of accomplishing her mission. The film’s colors are muted and drained. And impressively, the score accomplishes more with silence than some films achieve with a soundtrack covering every second of footage. In some scenes, the quiet pervades the background and creates an unnervingly menacing atmosphere; at other times it is a heavy punctuation mark on the brutal violence that recurs throughout the film. Director Michael Mann is an artist of atmosphere development.
In addition to its excellent tonal techniques, Blackhat is an unapologetically intelligent film. Though I am not a hacker or coder myself, the Internet informs me that this is the most accurate representation of computer coding to ever hit Hollywood, which holds up to my meager knowledge and memories of films where “hacking” is a magical catch-all of button mashing. It mentions and discusses very real factors in cyber security, from the RAT mentioned above to powerful encryptions and Onion Routers. Without prior knowledge, the film demands focus to put the pieces together and understand why the characters cannot simply technobabble a solution into existence. On a related note, explanations and plot points are not repeated often, making the viewer accountable for keeping up with the plot. For me, this was a refreshing change from movies that revel in redundancy (Hey there, Hobbit!).
Nonetheless, the film has some clear weaknesses that detract from its ability to entertain. For starters, though the actors themselves are superb, the characters are lacking. As I discussed up top, Wei Tang’s Chen Lien is a glorified sidekick to Hathaway’s hero character. The film goes to great lengths at first to not show the face of the villainous hacker, suggesting a dramatic reveal, but his actual identity is unimportant. He is simply a psycho with a convoluted get-rich-not-so-quick scheme. Viola Davis’s Carol Barrett has some depth, with a one-line backstory relating to why she is willing to break laws and ignore orders in the name of justice, and the only thing separating Hathaway from utterly generic roguish hero status is his drive for vengeance, which still isn’t an uncommon trait for anti-heroes.
Furthermore, the sequences travelling through the cables and data streams of a computer, in the fine tradition of first-person roller coaster videos, are cliché at best. Considering that most other hacker tropes were dismissed in favor of accuracy, I wish they had dispensed with this one as well.
Far from the explosive action movie I anticipated, Blackhat is anchored in its bleak reality; the violence is brutal, the bureaucracy obfuscating, and the injustice of events a simple reflection of the politics that rule us. And ultimately, this is why I think Blackhat is going to struggle. People expect flash and pizazz, especially with expectations of more Thor following Chris Hemsworth around. But Blackhat is more straightforward than that. It is not flashy explosions set to dramatic music as heroes slow-march away; it is, however, an exploration of the technology that shapes our lives and a brutal reminder of how easily we can be exploited.