The widely acclaimed soundtrack to Hackers introduced American audiences to techno a full two years before MTV, and music journalists began predicting that electronic music would kill rock. While the movie itself wasn't much of a box-office success, the soundtrack was so well received it led to two more volumes of music "inspired by" the film. For the ideal experience, click play on the embed to listen while you read.
The cultural impact of the mid-nineties tech revolution is still being felt today. Cell phones, email, webcams, the Hubble Space Telescope, the World Wide Web and HTML, digital cameras—all came about within a relatively short time span. A newly computerized world brought with it fears from the general public about the potential for technological abuses. This paranoia was keenly exploited by the filmmakers of the day.
Hackers, The Net, Virtuosity, GoldenEye and Johnny Mnemonic all came out in 1995, when just 14 million American adults were using the internet. Of these films, few stand the test of time. The flicks faced a unique challenge in attempting to make a fundamentally uninteresting, unfamiliar activity into something captivating. Hackers was a financial flop, but its hilariously over-the-top early CGI visuals, oddly prescient view on technology, and glam-cyberpunk aesthetic rendered it a cult classic.
To honor its 20th anniversary—at a time dogged by newfound fears about what the future of technology holds—we thought it would be fitting to bring together a group of actual hackers to screen and discuss the film. The kind folks at Hack Manhattan, who share a space with neighboring Babycastles, were happy to open their hackspace up to us. Despite being wildly inaccurate, the film was hugely inspiring to many members of Hack Manhattan for creating a certain mystique around hacking culture that other tech films never quite matched. The erstwhile optimism of the nineties tech boom is fondly captured in the film, and although it's been subsumed by Silicon Valley disruption rhetoric, Hackers is a beautiful, wildly entertaining expression of the moment. With so many other nineties trends resurfacing in popular culture, the movie is due for a rewatch. The following is a roundtable discussion that went down after credits rolled.
The trailer for ‘Hackers’
You are the first movie audience
to be hacked
Despite a heavy, high-octane marketing campaign and a sexy young cast, Hackers failed to make an impact at the box-office. It grossed $7,479,498 in its entire theatrical run.
The trailer above showcases the film and its cutting edge soundtrack, but this rarely seen teaser is amazing in its own right. Complete with Don LaFontaine voiceover, it begins as a trailer for some old western before informing the audience they've been hacked and teasing the actual film. It's virtually a retro version of the Rick Roll.
HOPES&FEARS: So, what is the most unrealistic scene?
HACKER 1: The date.
HACKER 2: Nerds don't go on dates.
HACKER 3: Probably the scene where they hack the Gibson. The modern-day comparison is like any mainframe that would have existed. The whole objective is to capture the flag; there's a hidden folder stuck somewhere in the fucking file system and they're just trying to find the fucking thing; and because whatever permissions they have and whatever credentials, it's scanned by the backlogging or credential sweeping.
HACKER 4: Anytime there's a 3D world that they go into...
HACKER 5: Whenever you can see the electrons.
H&F: Favorite actor?
HACKER 1: Johnny Lee Miller. They got married, they hooked up after the movie. For three whole years!
H&F: Angelina Jolie and that guy?
HACKER 1: Yeah, in 1996, until 1999. Johnny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie, yes.
HACKER 1: He pops up every 10 years or so to do something.
H&F: It's actually not a bad movie at all. It captures the time!
HACKER 2: It's outrageously terrible in the best way.
HACKER 1: I rented that thing from my local video store on VHS like four times.
HACKER 3: So, we were talking earlier about the rollerblading to pick up the disk.
HACKER 4: No, skateboarding! The good guys rollerblade. The bad guy skateboards!
HACKER 3: What you said was like, "Can you imagine explaining that to the limo driver?"
HACKER 4: It's like, "I need you for six city blocks so I can skitch alongside."
Skitchin on a limo
Floppy disks and skateboards
Fisher Steven's character, "The Plague," retrieves a floppy disk in an incredibly impractical manner.
HACKER 1: The two things that are actually historically kind of [prescient]: since then, we've had the BP oil spill and Exxon Valdez, and if they ever wanted a cover-up story for some shit...
HACKER 4: Exxon Valdez happened already...
HACKER 1: No, it was Deepwater Horizon. If you wanted a cover-up story you could take the script and play it through. To my knowledge, the only company that's ever been hacked as badly as portrayed in the movie is Sony, which is still trying to recover their fucking data, and their employees, their 9-to-5 employees that go to their terminals and still cannot access their data. To this day, Sony has not been able to recover 100% of their employee documents, deals, emails, etc.
HACKER 2: I think one of the most unrealistic parts is taking a floppy that you wrote on a machine, putting it in another one, and all of the files had no read errors.
H&F: Or pulling it out of the trash and still having it work.
HACKER 2: Yeah, with the gum on it.
HACKER 3: Floppies were resilient!
HACKER 2: No, they were not!
HACKER 3: They had the metal...
HACKER 2: But the electrostatic gremlins hate that.
HACKER 4: I think one of the most unrealistic things is pulling something from a Mac and putting into a PC in that era.
HACKER 5: Regarding the harassment game, the modern-day version is now "the trolling game." There are communities of trolls that exist specifically just to harass people.
HACKER 1: It's a combination of trolling and doxing. It was funny because like, Angelina Jolie's character is doing shit that's like Federal Crimes, and Johnny Lee Miller's character is like, spoofing Craigslist ads.
HACKER 3: They're still all CFAA [Computer Fraud and Abuse Act] violations, they could all be tried... Posting something for someone whom you're not allowed to be posting something for is a CFAA violation.
HACKER 1: Still, though, one is going through Craigslist vs the one who is actually going into the NYPD database. I think one warrants a bit more attention than the other one.
HACKER 3: But he made him deceased in the Secret Service database.
HACKER 2: When I first saw this movie, I was inspired to learn about computer hacking. I actually learned Assembly because of this movie.
HACKER 4.: I was hardcore inspired.
One iconic scene features the hackers salivating over Angelina Jolie’s character’s new laptop.
— By today’s standards, the technical specifications would be unimpressive. Here’s the rundown of the specs: "It’s got a 28.8 bps modem. Active Matrix display, a million psychedelic colors. lt has a killer refresh rate. P6 chip. Triple the speed of the Pentium. lt's not just the chip. lt has a PCl bus. RlSC architecture is going to change everything."
HACKER 1: That's what it was. It definitely inspired a generation of nerds.
HACKER 2: The worst things possible you can do on the internet... To troll, to dox, to harass...
HACKER 5: Newforge had just ended. It was '95.
HACKER 4: Did anyone else in here do the "war dialing?" [A technique of using a modem to scan a list of phone numbers in an effort to discover entry points into modems or networks.]
HACKER 5: Yeah.
HACKER 4: I just found a few, I always thought they were servers, I was always so excited like, "There's a Gibson on the other end!"
HACKER 2: I like the social engineering stuff, where he calls up the security guard and scams information out of him, the relevant computer is sitting right in front of the security guard.
HACKER 1: SysAdmins really would have Post-it notes on the actual hardware modem for like username and password, and it's just like, can you, security guard, read off the Post-It note that obviously wasn't supposed to be left there.
HACKER 2: He's actually employed to be the attack server.
Old school wearables
Google Glass blast from the past
As the hackers unite to prove a friend's innocence and "hack the planet," Johnny Lee Miller's character, "Crash Override," sports some sort of Google Glass-type eyewear for unknown reasons.
H&F: So, not to ask the obvious question, but as a Google Glass user, in 2015, what do you think of the scene where he uses a "wearable" while hacking?
HACKER 1: The only thing it would be useful for in that era would have just been an indicator light to let you know that someone triggered a tripwire, it might flash an LED, [and you] bail out on a separate circuit. Other than that, no. That thing is fucking useless.
HACKER 3: The virtual reality game the guy was playing, inside the ring or whatever, that's a real thing, we had it at the mall... Right now they have this thing that's like Oculus Rift and you put yourself in a harness ...
H&F: It's like an omnidirectional treadmill.
HACKER 5: We should throw a Hackers anniversary party...
HACKER 2: 1995, right? Yeah, it's been 20 years!
H&F: You know what the most unrealistic thing is? America being more afraid of white hackers than brown terrorists.
HACKER 1: None of that shit had happened yet.
H&F: Well, it was two years after the original World Trade Center bombing.
HACKER 2: It's a trip seeing aerial footage of New York from 1995, nothing is built up, the East Village is still kind of grungy.
HACKER 1: The footage of Grand Central, when they come down the ramp...
H&F: There's an Apple store in Grand Central now!
HACKER 4: When they're doing the shot when they come in from outside, that's actually the Apple Store.
HACKER 2: Big Iron was always the IBM term for what little Infosec [information security] they did, they actually coined the term. [In hacker terms, "Big Iron" refers to large, expensive, ultra-fast computers.]
In Hackers, an acoustic coupler is used to connect to the internet via various pay phones.
These devices convert electrical signals from a phone line into sound and then reconvert the sound into electrical signals.
HACKER 1: Emmanuel Goldstein. I like that reference.
HACKER 2: Wasn't Emmanuel Goldstein the young one who's name is something else?
HACKER 1: Yeah, Emmanuel Goldstein really lives in New York.
HACKER 2: And, yeah, didn't he consult on some part of this movie?
HACKER 1: I wouldn't be surprised.
HACKER 2: That's why the character of Emmanuel Goldstein is fairly accurate to anyone who's met him. Fairly accurate representation of young Emmanuel Goldstein.
HACKER 4: You said you met the bad guy?
[Fisher Stevens played the villain with a hacker pseudonym "The Plague."]
Hacker 2: Uh, my friend sees him around the city all the time. Mr. The Plague, he's around, and one of my friends hollers at him all the time, like "hey, the Plague!" and he's like [deflated], "Yeah. Yeah..."
Hacker 1: I love the idea of them getting away. Yeah, he was like wrongly accused, but at the same time ["Zero Cool" played by Johnny Lee Miller] turns whatever traffic lights in New York City to green, causing traffic accidents... He probably killed, like, 10 people and got off scot-free.
Hacker 4: That was the good guys doing that, right?
Hacker 1: Yeah, that was one of the most absurd things...
Hacker 3: Yeah, they murdered! Of all the crimes in that movie, there's larceny, probably, but that's murder.
Hacker 2: Murder would be if they killed them directly. Manslaughter is if they enabled the situation for them to be killed.
Hacker 5: The oil spill would've just been a fine. It still is a fine.
Hacker 2: But [the FBI] might not have known that he did that... The traffic thing.
Hacker 4: It looked like they went about eleven blocks...
H&F: They could've just taken the train. They're going to a train station!
Hacking space meets happening
Hackers like to visit a killer club to talk tech, plot schemes and rave out. This space is, of course, roller blade accessible to accommodate every keyboard jockey's preferred mode of transportation.
HACKER 1: What was that club...?
Hacker 3: Cyberdelia, man!
Hacker 1: Is that real?
Hacker 5: We should have Cyberdelia night!
Hacker 2: Cyber what?
Hacker 5: It would be incredible.
Hacker 4: I'm gonna wear a chandelier for a hat!
Hacker 1: It makes you wanna what?
Hacker 3: Write a sternly worded letter about computer architecture.
Hacker 1: Explain, at length, to the rest of the crowd, why it pisses you off.
Hacker 3: RISC vs. MIPS, all that bullshit. None of the technobabble is actually correct.
Hacker 5: At that point, they didn't actually have consultants to ask, "Is all this actually okay?"
Hacker 2: When the garbage file was downloaded, was the file removed from the source?
Hacker 1: No, because they downloaded it again when they were in, they went into the Gibson and redownload the file.
HACKER 4: I like how when they hack into the garbage file, it's just equations floating around.
Emmanuel Goldstein is a figure in the hacking community and was a consultant on Hackers.
— Goldstein's real name is Eric Corley. Lillard's character is named after him and takes on Corley's hacking pseudonym, "Cereal Killer.” Perhaps most notably, Goldstein is the founder of 2600 Magazine, the hacker quarterly that has spread tips, techniques, and the philosophy of hacking to an entire generation.
Hacking the Gibson
The Gibson is the world's biggest, bestest, most high-powered computer and Joey, the films most amateur hacker is able to bust into it. Once inside, Joey discovers a world of towering microchips, spinning equations, sparkling electrons and a garbage file that gets him into a lot trouble.
Hacker 3: E equals MC squared.
Hacker 1: The directories were all hidden, it was "/././."
Hacker 3: It was Workspace, so it would've been Eclipse [open-source software framework], right?
Hacker 4: Why did they need to capsize the ships on top of stealing the money? [The villain's nefarious plan is stealing money from an oil company and capsizing oil tankers with faulty code as a distraction.]
Hacker 3: That was a cover to bring in the secret service to confiscate things and harass the hackers. A private corporation doesn't have the legal authority to confiscate property.
H&F: I will say that for a movie made in 1995, the views on law and order and policing were pretty nuanced and ahead of their time. It was edgy for a movie at that time to say, "Maybe the law isn't always good?"
Hacker 3: I watched Sneakers again recently, too, another excellent hacking movie, and the major plot point is that the NSA is spying on its own citizens. In '96. That's avant-garde. Sneakers is a really good movie. It was objectively a better movie.
Hacker 1: Just by being as cartoony as it was it takes the edge off of it being bad.
H&F: I think the one thing that sets it apart was the styling, the outfits are really good, even kinda believable for the 90s. Not enough leather dusters though.
Hacker 3: Also, the scene where he brings out the books was kinda authentic.
Hacker 1: I had all those books!
Hacker 4: You can suspend disbelief because it's so cartoony, it's really enjoyable.
Hacker 5: Why don't you see more Hackers-era Angelina Jolie cosplays?
Hacker 1: I cringe watching this movie because I'm so embarassed at how much I modeled myself after "Cereal Killer" when I was like 16.
Hacker 5: The nineties had such pragmatic fashion. So many pockets!
Hacker 3: Can we touch on how amazing the soundtrack is? I can put it up somewhere.
Hacker 2: When The Prodigy still made decent music, The Stereo MCs that I still weirdly hear in music stores sometimes.
Hacker 1: It definitely felt like the time, some things looked like Trapper Keepers.
H&F: It's an eminently watchable film!
Hacker 5: The truth is that if you were to watch a real movie about real hacking, it would be the most boring shit imaginable. It would be unwatchable.
H&F: Also, the people would be unbearable.
Hacker 3: Wait, what are you saying about us?
Hacker 1: Let me talk to you about Bitcoins.
Hacker 5: I don't consider myself a hacker, I don't think I was ever smart enough.
H&F: The layperson would consider you a hacker.
Hacker 5: Exactly. I like hanging around people that know what they're doing. I would watch a movie about the real hackers.
Hacker 1: Mostly it would be people in a space like this sitting around on keyboards typing.
Hacker 5: I would watch like nine hours of that!
Virtuality Group introduced the first Virtual Reality cabinets to arcades in 1991.
While they were quite large and didn’t feature very many games, it's surprising that home units were offered at just $300. However despite the reasonable price, only 55,000 units were ever sold.
Today, the return of VR is constantly being hyped, primarily on the potential of the Oculus Rift headset and other similar models. But the big round cabinet you stand in is making a return as well with Virtuix’s treadmill-type unit.
Cover image photo: Simon Chetrit