It’s a rare film that can somehow manage to be both unbelievably dated yet still timely. Hackers, the 1995 cult classic from Iain Softley, has faced more than its fair share of ridicule over the years, but it stands today as much a surprisingly prescient depiction of teen online culture as it does a veritable time capsule of 1990s technopunk. The hacking aspect of the film leaves something to be desired, to be sure; it doesn’t seem as though the filmmakers went to the trouble of doing much research, or even so much as owned a computer. What it does capture, however, is the spirit of teenage rebellion as channeled through the newest technology of the day, reflecting both the moralistic attitudes of hackers as well as the social element of an online community. And in this aspect, Hackers foreshadows the new generation of internet warriors who have used their technological superiority to wage war against their political establishment foes.
From the beginning, it’s clear that these online crusaders have their own firmly established moral code. Dade Murphy’s (Jonny Lee Miller) first hack of the film, committed at the age of eleven, gives a giant middle finger to Wall Street. And after he turns 18 and is legally allowed to own a computer again, we see him hack into a local television station to replace a white supremacist “America First” program with a rerun of The Outer Limits. Yes, these hackers are infiltrating security systems partially out of boredom and the rush of committing a technically illegal but largely victimless crime. But they repeatedly demonstrate a distaste for large corporations that take advantage of consumers, a disillusionment with the political elite, and a desire to serve as a merry band of techno-Robin Hoods.
Hacking, then, becomes an act of resistance, much as it is when executed by groups like Anonymous over the last decade or so. But the larger parallel is between these elite hackers tapping into banks and government organizations and the social media activists of today. The recent coup of teens using Tiktok to exploit weaknesses in Trump’s event software,artificially inflating expectations for attendance and ultimately embarrassing the campaign, feels like a natural extension of what the kids in Hackers were doing. One may require ingenuity rather than advanced computing skills, but both take advantage of their superior technical abilities to combat the perceived wrongs of the generations that came before them.
When the hackers gather together and watch an underground TV show featuring hacking tips (similar in many ways to activist social media accounts today), they’re shown how to hack a payphone to avoid paying for long distance calls, thereby sticking it to the greedy telephone companies. It’s an oversimplified and legally dubious method, but it’s still an ethically sound attempt to damage a system that allows for the excesses of large corporations. We even hear the manifesto of the hackers, with rage and demands for justice that would not sound entirely out of place among today’s liberal youth resistance: “We exist without nationality, skin color or religious bias. You wage wars, murder, cheat, lie to us and try to make us believe it’s for our own good, yet we are the criminals.”
But as much as they have admirable goals, they are still teenagers, and it’s undeniable that a huge draw is the camaraderie the online community of hackers provides. In that regard, Hackers may be one of the first mainstream films to highlight online culture, and the cliques and gatekeeping that are built around some aspects of it. Teen years are a constant battle for identity and acceptance, which we see play out within this insular hacking community. When we first meet Joey (Jesse Bradford), the youngest and least experienced member of the group, he’s desperate for an online handle. “I don’t have an identity until I have a handle,” he complains. The pressure to belong and to obtain the social cache of being an “elite” hacker is a huge driver within the group, as is the perpetual desire to one-up each other and make a name for themselves by taking on bigger and more dangerous hacks. So in the cool, edgy world of Hackers, hacking is not just a hobby or a way to get back at corporate America, but a means by which to define oneself in a strict online hierarchy. And in that respect, it’s not unlike the modern pressure to cultivate a social media following or obtain the highly-vaunted status of influencer.
Hackers could not be more painfully rooted in the mid-90s if it tried. Everything from the clothes to the techno-clubs to the stylized depictions of what the internet looks like basically scream that it exists in one exact moment in time in 1995, and a heightened version at that. Which is why it’s surprising that, at the end of the day, it does manage to get so much right in terms of representing a youth resistance movement built entirely through the internet, as well as the massive importance online culture would come to have on teenagers. With that in mind, it’s probably time for this movie to get credit for something other than the fact that it features peak-90s Jonny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie in the starring roles.