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Hear Us Out: Hackers Was the Best Cyber-Thriller in a Year Chock Full of Them

Sure, it's goofy and way too cool for school, but that's why it's also the most memorable of the mid-'90s technological thriller boom in Hollywood.

by | September 15, 2020 | Comments

Hackers (1995)

(Photo by United Artists courtesy Everett Collection)

Computers and the internet hit the big screen in a big way in 1995, when movies like Hackers, The Net, Virtuosity, Johnny Mnemonic, Ghost in the Shell, Goldeneye, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, Judge Dredd, and Strange Days all featured hackers or computer savvy villains furiously typing away on their abused keyboards. In fact, we’d wager the films of 1995 feature the most typing of any year in cinema, since that was “the year Hollywood finally noticed the web,” when studios went all-in on movies featuring A-list talent and intriguing fresh faces arguing about gigabytes, worms, and VR amalgams. The results were rarely Fresh, but in the 25 years since, we’ve grown to love these early visions of the internet.

One of the most memorable entries of the decade was Hackers, a conspiracy techno-thriller that opened on September 15, 1995 and marked the first major starring role for both Jonny Lee Miller (Trainspotting, CBS’ Elementary) and Angelina Jolie. Of course, it wasn’t the only notable film of its kind released in 1995, so in honor of its 25th anniversary, we decided to look back at a few other similarly themed films, compare some data, make a few judgment calls, and decide which of them comes out on top. In other words, it was all just about as scientifically accurate as Johnny Mnemonic, and almost as much fun.

Here are the four competitors:

  • The Net Sandra Bullock unravels a conspiracy — and orders pizza;
  • Hackers – Jonny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie lead a group of teens in a hacking war against a skateboarding genius;
  • Johnny Mnemonic – A cyber-courier played by Keanu Reeves teams up with a porpoise and wrestles with Dolph Lundgren;
  • VirtuosityDenzel Washington battles a murderous A.I. named SID 6.7 (a Sadistic, Intelligent, and Dangerous Russell Crowe).

Highest Tomatometer

Sandra Bullock in The Net

(Photo by Everett Collection)

The Net – 40%
Hackers – 33%
Virtuosity – 32%
Johnny Mnemonic – 13%

With a 40% Tomatometer score, The Net wins this category purely because it’s the least Rotten. And why is that? Well, it’s anchored by a likable performance by Sandra Bullock, who plays a cybersecurity specialist trapped in — ahem — the net of a Hitchockian suspense-thriller involving stolen identities, cyberterrorists, and online pizza-ordering. The movie feels relatively grounded, as there are no cybernetically-enhanced characters, skateboarding villains, or naked bad guys who cut off their fingers. Director Irwin Winkler chose to use the newish technology of the internet to craft an old-fashioned suspense-thriller, as opposed to setting the film far in the future, like, say, the 2021 of Johnny Mnemonic. By blending low-stakes hacking (control-shift) with age-old storytelling, he made the most mainstream of the 1995 computer movies and the one that the least number of critics felt compelled to ESC.

In other words, by playing it safe and smart, The Net claimed the best reviews. Winkler’s background as a producer on Goodfellas and Rocky helped, as he knew how to budget and steer a successful film. On the other hand, Johnny Mnemonic was a proposed independent film directed by a relative newcomer that became a summer tentpole and allegedly went through major edits just weeks before release. Similarly, Virtuosity was allegedly rewritten during production, and Washington and Crowe still dislike the movie. Hackers had no interest in playing it safe, and instead focused on the hacker counterculture, which left it open for critical disdain (it was too cool for critics — and most viewers at the time).

The best thing about The Net is Sandra Bullock proving how well she can act in front of a computer screen. Todd A. Marks, a consultant on The Net, said, “Some actors can’t really act and type at the same time; Sandra could.” Watch The Net again, and you’ll see what we’re talking about.

Highest Audience Score

Hackers – 68%
The Net – 44%
Virtuosity – 32%
Johnny Mnemonic – 31%

While the Ian Softley-directed Hackers didn’t light the world on fire during its brief September release, it managed to hack its way into the world’s consciousness by effusive word-of-mouth and passed-around VHS tapes. The film is loaded with multiple scenes of “hacking” and references to iconic cyberpunk author William Gibson (who wrote the original short story Johnny Mnemonic, by the way) and the Hacker Manifesto, but what makes it stand out is its focus on a family unit of likable outcasts who crash on each other’s couches and roller-blade their way to victory. The cult classic is a scrappy film featuring authentic-feeling teenagers who go toe-to-toe with a nefarious computer security officer who calls himself The Plague (Fisher Stevens), and who is looking to get rich by embezzling from his employer. Re-watching Hackers in 2020, it’s neat to see how incredibly of-its-time it is, yet somehow also forward-thinking in its funky costuming (still popular today) and its casting of big-screen newcomers Angelina Jolie and Jonny Lee Miller.

With over 122,000 audience ratings and reviews that declare it “the best movie of all time,” Hackers scores an easy win in this category by being both charmingly retro and timeless, thanks to its cyber-world and likable characters like Joey (Jesse Bradford), Cereal Killer (Matthew Lillard), Nikon (Laurence Mason), and Phreak (Renoly Santiago).

Biggest Box Office Take

Sandra Bullock in The Net

(Photo by Everett Collection)

The Net – $49.5 million
Virtuosity – $24 million
Johnny Mnemonic – $19 million
Hackers – $7.5 million

This was an easy win for The Net and Sandra Bullock, who was coming off of the $182 million-grossing While You Were Sleeping, in which she starred as a lonely woman who lies to an entire family about being the fiancè of a man in a coma, then falls in love with the man’s brother, and everybody is cool with it. Bullock was so effortlessly likable, as she always is, that the world completely ignored the insanity of the plot. The same thing essentially happened with The Net, a Rotten movie with a 44% Audience Score that still somehow pulled in $111 million worldwide. Basically, The Net could have been replotted as a fishing movie or retitled While You Were Typing, and it still would have been popular if Bullock was the lead. Also, the PG-13 rating and prime July release were enough to make sure it made more money by its second week than the other three films.

With that said, none of these films topped the box office during their opening weekends; Johnny Mnemonic debuted at #6, Virtuosity and Hackers both opened at #4, and even The Net only managed to debut at #2. This is remarkable when you consider that, in 1995, movies featuring a red-hot Denzel Washington or Keanu Reeves struggled to make money. Of course, both Johnny Mnemonic and Virtuosity were critically derided for being too silly and derivative, but the 1990s weren’t a particularly great time for virtual reality thrillers in general, as The Lawnmower Man, The Thirteenth Floor, and Ghost in the Machine all failed to crack the zeitgeist.

Which Movie Aged the Best?

While The Net has the most timeless and grounded plot involving identity theft and internet security, nowadays it plays like any other 1990s thriller, except that it ends with Sandra Bullock bonking a hitman on the head with a fire extinguisher. People still order pizza online, and online security and fraud are still a problem, but for all its foresight, The Net hasn’t inspired a cult following like that of Hackers. Hackers captured lightning in a bottle with memorable catchphrases (“Hack the planet!”), an inspired soundtrack featuring Prodigy and Orbital, and a singular dedication to sunglasses with circular lenses. The film is still mentioned in countless articles (here, here, here, here, and here), and costume designer Roger Burton’s eclectic fashion is beloved, even though in 1995, the actors were thinking “What the f**k is this guy on?” For the film’s 20th anniversary, Shout Factory! released a loaded Blu-ray and the cast and crew screened the film all over the world to packed theaters.

Virtuosity and Johnny Mnemonic aren’t without a few moments of their own, but it’s hard to say they’ve aged the best when the lead actors and writers have virtually disowned them. Johnny Mnemonic still has its charms, though, like its cyberpunk dystopia and a long-haired Dolph Lundgren chewing up the scenery. And did we mention the porpoise? Yeah, Keanu takes Lundgren down with the help of a porpoise. That’s worth something.

Which Movie Got the Most Right?

After scrolling through countless articles about the most realistic hacks and watching videos of hackers analyzing movie scenes, we’re going to go with Hackers here. The Net is a close second, but despite Todd A. Marks being proud of the work he did on that film, he admits “it’s a movie, not a documentary. It’s always a fine line between accurate and visually interesting.” Which makes sense, because if The Net was 100% accurate, it would be a 12-hour film mostly focused on computers loading data. Obviously we didn’t pick Virtuosity, since killer androids aren’t running amok (at least, not that we know of), and despite the very real dangers of email, the world hasn’t resorted to Johnny Mnemonic’s “data couriers” to deliver sensitive information. Of course, Virtuosity and Johnny Mnemonic admittedly weren’t striving for realism, and both were so highly speculative about what was possible with computers that we can’t necessarily say that they got things wrong.

On the other hand, what Hackers did so well was to capture the actual spirit of, well, hackers. Vice’s Motherboard interviewed real hackers about their love for the film, and while they admit that it’s “fantastical Hollywood stuff” and that it borrowed from the plot of Superman III, they also say “it’s quite possibly the single greatest hacker film known to hackerkind.” The actors went to hacking schools and attended conventions to nail the culture, and they developed a camaraderie that is clearly seen on screen. Several of the “hacks” in the movie have even earned a seal of approval from techies, as the the TV station hack, the editing of the class attendance lists, and the creation of fake personal ads are all possible.

Softley realized pretty early on that he didn’t just want to depict pretty people staring at computer screens, so he and Peter Chiang, the VFX supervisor, nearly drove themselves insane creating a visually appealing (and totally unrealistic) world to help audiences understand what exactly was going on. It looks dated now, but in 1995, with the budget they had, it was a brave new world. In the end, they did exactly what The Net’s Marks described, skirting that “fine line between accurate and visually interesting,” and all they got for their trouble was a bona fide cult classic.

Final Result

Johnny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie in Hackers

(Photo by ©MGM courtesy Everett Collection)

So who wins our little unofficial showdown of 1995’s cyber-thrillers? It’s Hackers, of course, with its impeccable fashion sense, it’s unforgettable one-liners, its earnest, surprisingly authentic portrayal of counterculture attitudes, and so much more. As The Plague would say, “There is no right or wrong, only fun and boring,” and Hackers is anything but boring, so if you’ve never seen it, don’t take our word — and our very scientific findings here — for it. Boot up or shut up.

Hackers was released in U.S. theaters on September 15, 1995. It is available to rent or buy on FandangoNOW, Vudu, Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes, and it is currently streaming on HBO Max.

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