Pop Culture Pet Peeve: Hacker scenes are all the same

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Image Credit: Stephanie Blomkamp

Hollywood loves hackers. They’re an easy plot fix. Need some passwords? Get the hacker! Want an eye in the sky? Get the hacker! Gotta diffuse a bomb? GET. THE. HACKER.

Look, I get it. When the hero inevitably runs into a dead end, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief and accept that a fictional hacker can solve everything. But it’s not 1995 anymore; computers are not relatively new inventions (and not everything you need is in them), so over time, these hacker scenes have only become more tedious than revolutionary.

Let’s start with the latest hacking-as-a-plot-point offender: this summer’s Elysium. Toward the end (minor spoilers ahead), our hero Max (Matt Damon) is forced to carry critical data to the “core” of the wealthy outpost in space. Who does he bring along? A hacker named Spider (Wagner Moura) who just happens to know exactly how to use the data stored in Max’s head to—what else?—save the world.

And Spider does what every movie hacker does: He types a thousand lines of “code,” steps back and clasps his sweaty hands together, praying that what he just keyboard-smashed will work.

Ugh. Not this again.

I didn’t always find “hacking” scenes so annoying to watch. When Lex (Ariana Richards) tries to reboot the security system in Jurassic Park (“It’s a UNIX system! I know this!”), I remember being on the edge of my seat, nervously gritting my teeth while she navigated the files. I used to sweat alongside Livingston Dell (Eddie Jemison) in Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels, as he used one shortcut after the next to help his fellow thieves access casino vaults.

Not anymore. Now, whenever a character takes a seat in front of a computer, cracks his knuckles and starts typing, I’m bored out of my mind, because every hacking scene ends up looking the same. Fingers fly over the keys, sweat drips from the hacker’s eyebrows and the monitor displays some fancy graphic to convince you that, yes, this hacker is doing something. And when screenwriters don’t know what else to do, they have the characters ramble off gibberish to distracts the viewer. Even Hugh Jackman can’t make scenes like those coherent.

And then there’s the annoying trope of timing. A buffering video is frustrating enough; why must films involving hackers have them staring at a bar slowly go from 98 percent… to 99 percent… to 100? (Elysium is an offender again on this one.) It’s become a weak ploy to get the audience invested in the drama and, simply put, no fun to watch. Yes, it can play up the tension, but if most of the film already includes hacking as a plot device, it slows down the pace.

It’s not just the portrayal of these scenes, but the portrayal of the hackers as well. Most hackers—Matt Farrell (Justin Long) in Live Free or Die Hard, the aforementioned Dell in Ocean’s Eleven, Skip Tyler (Jimmi Simpson) in White House Down—are shown to be awkward, stuttering, usually bespectacled nerds. (Hugh Jackman in Swordfish is obviously an exception.)

It’s been done so often that every hacker, no matter what weird characteristic they’re given, comes off as one-note, socially awkward outcasts. And no, not every film is meant to delve into extensive character backgrounds, but enough with this stereotype already. Hackers can be cool, too. Smallville’s Chloe (Allison Mack) was my idol, and another Chloe (Bennet, that is) is set to play Skye, a hacker on Agents of SHIELD, who promises she won’t be one of the “weird outcasts who only know how to deal with electronics.” Even though they’re still victim to hacking scenes, both Girl with the Dragon Tattoo adaptations characterize Lisbeth Salander as more than just a hacker.

Ultimately, it’s all about hacking as a skill, not as the sole characteristic or a vague plot device. Break a firewall and the MI6 headquarters blow up? Type some gibberish and all of America goes in lockdown? You’re better than that, screenwriters. Before you dive into making movies about Wikileaks or the NSA, remember: It’s not about whether or not the hacking is realistic, it’s about using that hacking effectively in your plot.

But maybe I’m the only one annoyed at hackers on screen. (After all, without them, the Internet wouldn’t have hackertyper.com—just type anything and watch what happens.) So it’s your call: Are you a fan of hacking scenes or are you tired of them as well? Whatever your opinion, just don’t get me started on Hackers.


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