Sometimes timing is everything when releasing a major studio film. That’s why we get The Prestige and The Illusionist one after the other, Antz and A Bug’s Life, Dante’s Peak and Volcano, The Truman Show and EdTV, all released within a month or two of a very similar counterpart. Is that good timing or bad timing? If the subject of these films is “in”, then it hardly matters. People suddenly like period magician dramas, so they want both Illusionist and Prestige. They suddenly like animated ants and volcanic destruction and reality TV heroes, so they want multiple movies about them. One can imagine a studio holding a film they find to be strikingly similar to one that just came out, hoping to distance this from that, only to be accused of copying the success of the first.
Whatever the studio machinations, sometimes the relevance of a movie is just plain dumb luck. Hacking and cyberterrorism have been in the news quite a bit lately, what with the November data leak at Sony and subsequent hullabaloo surrounding The Interview only just starting to get pushed to page two. Michael Mann’s globetrotting hacking drama Blackhat addresses that current fear, but unfortunately it doesn’t manage to extract a very good story out of the headlines.
Chris Hemsworth stars as sexy convicted hacker Nick Hathaway, biceps clearly bristling from hours of intense typing. When an unseen “blackhat” hacker triggers an explosion at a nuclear power plant and effortlessly screws around with the global stock prices of rice, Nick’s the only nerd
sexy smart enough to track the criminal and stop him. The cliché of needing an imprisoned genius to solve a new crime is followed by countless other clichés — the “I won’t do it for free” cliché, the pointless love interest with fellow coder cliché, etc. — but the clichés aren’t Blackhat‘s main problem.
As far as real-world hacking is concerned, John Q. Public is privy to what probably amounts to a small percentage of each story. We hear about the fallout from a particular data leak, we read the most incriminating of private emails, we maybe feel the economic effects in one way or another. “Exciting” seems a poor word choice, considering how some people truly are negatively affected by such crime, so we’ll state in no uncertain terms that the public perception of the overall tale is “the exciting part” only in the context of a fictional crime movie like Blackhat. Unfortunately, in trying to depict the whole story — not just the public perception of the whole story — Blackhat delves into the stuff that is categorically unexciting, and in attempting to make an action movie out of guys traveling to different countries in order to peer into a screen at lines of code it falls flat.
Hemsworth’s Hathaway is a really uneven character, too. If Hathaway was well-written, Blackhat could have been forgiven for a slogging pace and a Hollywoodized cliché train. Hathaway needs to be interesting, because the nature of the unseen villain is such that his interest level hovers somewhere not far above zero. He can attack anything, anywhere, anytime, but that premise alone isn’t enough to actually make his presence threatening, or to make his villainy into much of a presence at all. Hathaway never seems like he’s fighting for a cause, only fighting this uninteresting phantom, and so there’s very little to latch onto. The ambiguity of this hero/criminal (“grayhat”) is never fleshed out or challenged. To boot, Hathaway’s a suave operator in one scene, an overly serious and brooding mastermind in the next, and an inexplicable d*ck whenever he feels like it. Hemsworth is fine in the part, but it’s just a poorly written character.
In fact, I’m not sure if it’s a point in favor or a point against Blackhat that Hemsworth is in the driver’s seat. He’s a sexy hacker, and so when he does his thing it’s sexy typing and generating sexy algorithms. Again, he doesn’t seem to be fighting for a cause, but he does have long beautiful hair. If Hathaway was a bespectacled dweeb, would Blackhat be more realistic? Or would it be less watchable for Hemsworth’s absence?
Michael Mann has always been rooted in stylish modern crime, and so the effort to sex up computers is certainly more at home in his wheelhouse than in any other director’s. His trademark action sequences pop up a few times in the film, and at times they are pretty thrilling. Dark neon green lighting cut with stark shadows, interesting jaunts into the Matrix-like body of a data stream — Mann tries hard, as does Hemsworth, and the newsworthy relevance adds a bit to the immediacy of the thing, but ultimately there’s just no salvaging the lack of story and character in Blackhat.