Good hacker movies are hard to come by. Why? For one thing, it’s pretty hard to make an interesting movie about a guy sitting at a computer. For another, all of the drama of hacking and the digital world is mostly invisible to the naked eye. This presents a particular challenge for a visual storytelling medium like cinema. Some hacker movies have been good. Others have been bad. And still others should have never been made. We shall not speak their names (after this rundown).
The Good: Tron (1982)
Tron is sort of the original hacker movie. It revolves around a software engineer (Jeff Bridges) who gets “digitized” and inserted into a computer program. I recently saw it for the first time and was impressed with the visuals, as well as the film’s sense of fun. On a 4K screen, the remastered images are truly something to behold. The movie basically puts you inside a retro arcade game, which is, even four decades later, pretty awesome.
The Good: WarGames (1983)
Made in the early Eighties, WarGames helped inspire a whole new generation of hackers—and you can see why. A young Matthew Broderick plays David Lightman, a talented high school nerd who manages to hack into NORAD and accidentally almost starts WWIII. Lightman’s exploits inspired droves of similarly talented youngsters to become keyboard warriors in the years to come.
The Good: Sneakers (1992)
Sneakers is a cool-ass movie. It has an amazing cast (Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Ben Kinsley, Dan Akroyd, David Strathairn, and River Phoenix) and it’s an above-average premise for a hacker film: a team of penetration testers is roped into a bizarre conspiracy involving a tool that can unlock all of the federal government’s encryption defenses. Recommended viewing!
The Good: The Net (1995):
The Net is a deeply ridiculous movie that nevertheless weirdly predicted some of the most terrifying hacker shenanigans that now plague our world. Made in 1995, Sandra Bullock plays a systems analyst living in Silicon Valley who gets roped into a vast conspiracy involving cyber espionage. She goes on the run for her life, and digital thrills ensue.
The Good: Hackers (1995)
Hack the planet! Jonny Lee Miller, Angelina Jolie, and Matthew Lillard star in this nineties classic about...you guessed it! The stylish film was heavily inspired by the cyberpunk subculture that flourished in the digital community during the early Nineties, and it’s a great time capsule of that period.
The Bad: Swordfish (2001)
Swordfish opens with a sequence in which John Travolta’s character forces Hugh Jackman’s to hack the Pentagon while receiving a blowjob from a woman at gunpoint. The movie doesn’t get much more intelligent from there. If you suspend all disbelief, the movie is almost enjoyable but, unfortunately, if you have any standards at all, it is tragically stupid.
Jackman plays Stanley Jobson (Steve Jobs, anyone?), an ex-con who gets roped into a bizarre cyber heist. Travolta plays a cyber villain who wants to terrorize the world’s terrorists using money stolen from a federal slush fund (???). He also has a bad haircut that weirdly looks a lot like the one sported by the bad guy from another movie on this list, Hackers. Bucking convention, Swordfish asks its audience to believe that, in peak physical condition, Jackman is also one of the best hackers in the world. Sure!
The Ugly: Blackhat (2015)
Michael Mann, a director I otherwise revere, tried to take his considerable talents to the hacker genre with Blackhat. Known for gritty crime thrillers like Heat, Collateral, and Public Enemies, Mann attempts to digitize that formula and missed the mark by a pretty considerable margin.
Much like Swordfish, the movie asks the audience to believe that the best hacker in the world is also simultaneously the fittest guy ever. In Mann’s film, that guy is Chris Hemsworth (you know, Thor), who is in prison for hacking. However, he gets released to help track down a hacker terrorist who has used a Stuxnet-like program to explode a nuclear power plant. The movie is mystifyingly long (133 minutes), and you really feel it.
The Good: Citizenfour (2015)
Laura Poitras’ documentary about the Edward Snowden leaks is a very bizarre movie. As you probably know, Poitras was one of only people in the room with Snowden when he began divulging the NSA’s creepy secrets to the world. Those moments of revelation are documented in detail by Poitras’ austere camera work. As a result, the film gives the viewer the eerie impression of watching a historical event as it happens. That said, it’s also required viewing for pretty much everybody who has used the internet. Check it out.
The Bad: Snowden (2016)
One year after Poitras’ fascinating documentary about Snowden was released, Oliver Stone decided to dramatize the hacker’s story. I’m usually on board for Stone’s conspiratorial leftie movies, but he kinda shit the bed on this one. For one thing, Joe Gordon Levitt is a bad choice to play Snowden. He doesn’t look like him, and his impression of the whistleblower’s voice sounds less like the real guy and more like a vacuum cleaner with gravel caught in it. But the biggest issue might be the screenplay (written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald), which treats a really fascinating subject matter with rote biographical gestures that reveal nothing. The movie also lacks any real production value, and it’s boring.
The Ugly: The Fifth Estate
Pretty much nobody asked for a movie about Julian Assange and yet, we got one just the same. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the hacktivist during his pre-prison days as he sets about on his quest to promote global transparency and spill the American empire’s military secrets to the world. Like Stone’s Snowden, the film takes a drab, predictable approach to storytelling, which is unfortunate given the enigmatic, zigzagging person it attempts to dramatize. For a more interesting but similarly oblique portrait of the man, check out Laura Poitras’ documentary Risk.