January 16, 2015
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Review by Christian Leithart

  • Blackhat begins with a sinister shot from outer space of the whole world connected. Thin blue lines spiderweb across the globe as the camera zooms in on one particular power plant in one particular country. The camera continues to zoom through a computer screen in the power plant and zip past bands of cables – effects reminiscent of the original Tron – until it finally arrives at some kind of digital switchyard. By this time, we’re aware that something at this nano-level is about to go very wrong.

    One thing that sets apart the thriller genre is the convention that the villain makes the first move. In Blackhat, a vague presence with a cigarette and a mop of curly hair makes a few keystrokes, presses "Enter," and the world watches in horror as a nuclear power plant in Hong Kong overheats and explodes. This kind of omnipotence is a repeated theme throughout the film. In this world, knowledge is power, and time and distance offer no protection. The “blackhat” of the title is the faceless villain who hacks into security systems, either for fun or for personal gain, all the more dangerous because of his anonymity. In the age of the internet, all this has the potential to be terrifyingly real, but Blackhat never quite lives up to its subject matter. It lumbers along, never quite boring, but never quite sharp, either.

    The story flits from one location to another, leaving us to rely on the characters to keep our bearings. The meltdown in Hong Kong forces the Chinese to send military cyber-crime expert Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom) to team up with FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis, who does a good job convincing all of us that she’s just waiting for her retirement). Chen also enlists his computer engineer sister Lien (Wei Tang) and super-hacker Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), who’s been holed up in prison for the past few years, and who also happened to be Chen’s college roommate at MIT.

    There’s been a fuss over the casting of Hemsworth as an elite hacker from MIT, since Hemsworth is just too darned toned and good-looking. Hemsworth actually does a passable job, but since a lot of his performance consists of glowering at computers or chasing bad guys, the bar is pretty low. Hathaway turns out to be quite an asset to the team, but rarely as a computer whiz. The FBI and Chinese military follow the hacker’s trail across the globe, but it’s Hathaway who does the sleuthing. He shoots mercenaries, breaks into buildings, and beats three thugs senseless, never showing the slightest regret for his actions. At the same time, Hathaway is held up as the “whitehat,” the hero, the digital do-gooder. He lacerates a man’s face in a Chinese restaurant, and in the very next scene, falls into bed with Lien. It’s almost as though the writers couldn’t decide whether to make him Wolverine or Captain America, and ended up trying to do both at the last minute.

    Consciously or not, the movie sets up its villain as an omnipotent god. He is faceless, yet in complete control. He kills from afar, with the tap of a button. Late in the movie, the villain tells Hathaway over the phone, "I can make you disappear, cease to exist." He controls the world wide web, and therefore he controls the fate of mankind. In order to defeat such a god, Hathaway must track him down and grapple with him hand to hand. The final confrontation is simultaneously the most human conflict in the film, since the two are physically tussling, and the least, since those around them are ruthlessly mown down without a second glance. At the end of the day, the peons really ought to stand aside and let these alphas decide the fate of the world.

    Michael Mann was an avant-garde action filmmaker (Heat is probably his best known film) for a long time before he fell out of the public eye. He has his devoted fans, all of whom were excited, I’m sure, by the prospect of this director tackling a new kind of thriller, set in the world of cyber crime. Mann does his best to be interested in all things hacker-related - rumor has it he paid hacking experts to hang around on set and make sure he got all the details right - but the result is dry as a bone. The movie's most entertaining scenes are the ones where the hackers resort to clumsier methods of burglary: crashing a truck through the roof of a server warehouse, for example. In the most exciting hacking scene, Lien convinces a security guard to plug her USB drive into his computer. He complies, and Hathaway has access to the bank's entire system. It's almost laughably easy, but compared to the rest of the film, it feels refreshingly old-school.

    In this world of interconnectivity, cyber attacks are a real threat. The same miracle that lets me instantly communicate with friends on the other side of the world allows a savvy hacker in Indonesia to steal someone's identity. Blackhat seems primed to play with these themes, but never quite lives up to the task.

  • Release Date
    January 16, 2015
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