Hear Us Out

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.

Tag Cloud

scary movies Pop TV Funimation tv talk Song of Ice and Fire based on movie Toys blaxploitation Action green book justice league king kong dragons animated golden globes boxing Lionsgate Exclusive Video Alien travel spain Rock Academy Awards Mystery Sci-Fi book blockbusters 24 frames mission: impossible werewolf The Witch comic books PBS Emmys rom-coms book adaptation Quiz TV renewals MCU cops supernatural ghosts Premiere Dates sag awards Valentine's Day prank TNT natural history DirecTV Countdown die hard toronto Box Office Bravo Apple TV Plus YA screen actors guild OWN Esquire Classic Film foreign romance universal monsters BET Fall TV FX HBO Go APB witnail crime drama Cannes Cartoon Network sitcom worst movies 007 GoT hist Best and Worst TV Land Fox Searchlight black free movies YouTube Red italian Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt PaleyFest Election Black Mirror Sony Pictures movies Food Network Musical mockumentary Fox News Spectrum Originals Amazon Prime Star Wars child's play SDCC A24 Christmas canceled political drama The CW FX on Hulu venice Amazon SundanceTV biography discovery anthology MTV Disney nfl Country deadpool Captain marvel Thanksgiving ratings Animation Rocky Discovery Channel TCA New York Comic Con BAFTA remakes Photos superman FXX franchise parents Awards Tour Year in Review Nat Geo CMT docudrama adaptation adventure HBO Max joker 71st Emmy Awards Holidays all-time Netflix VOD Sundance TV dark 99% Set visit halloween Tumblr kong Paramount Network Syfy X-Men slashers best classics First Reviews football Marvel DGA Columbia Pictures directors Disney+ Disney Plus Turner australia dramedy concert Spike OneApp jurassic park Lifetime reboot teaser Polls and Games Podcast zombies Shudder kids Universal saw superhero Masterpiece crime chucky space cults asian-american Extras cats Walt Disney Pictures spy thriller name the review Film Festival ESPN WGN Starz crossover movie 20th Century Fox DC streaming service kaiju james bond Disney Plus Mary Tyler Moore CNN ABC Family Fantasy CBS video YouTube Premium HBO American Society of Cinematographers Film TCM social media sequel godzilla TV worst Baby Yoda golden globe awards docuseries Pride Month The Walt Disney Company RT21 cancelled TV series serial killer comedies Rocketman Sundance aliens Logo Drama Horror Women's History Month Nickelodeon popular Watching Series ABC Binge Guide Trivia The Academy mutant vampires disaster a nightmare on elm street Pop doctor who Paramount Plus obituary BBC One spinoff Pet Sematary twilight Endgame Writers Guild of America Tubi Musicals See It Skip It canceled TV shows Turner Classic Movies Sundance Now Red Carpet dceu robots Marathons Stephen King cancelled television Emmy Nominations Oscars MSNBC Tarantino films Peacock Interview Brie Larson 93rd Oscars IFC Films richard e. Grant romantic comedy 2019 Freeform science fiction anime Super Bowl 2020 Chernobyl french Grammys Opinion Music FOX Vudu Black History Month First Look RT History BBC japanese Teen TCA 2017 PlayStation breaking bad National Geographic unscripted archives History Adult Swim Lifetime Christmas movies batman hollywood Tomatazos GLAAD Ovation award winner Superheroe Broadway sports transformers reviews WarnerMedia Disney Channel Amazon Studios Mudbound Western sequels binge cancelled TV shows Pirates composers critics Reality Competition jamie lee curtis Britbox VH1 Avengers Acorn TV heist movie TBS San Diego Comic-Con Cosplay 2021 blockbuster harry potter facebook dc President USA Mindy Kaling cancelled DC Universe spider-man TCA Awards Pixar CBS All Access police drama singing competition TIFF pirates of the caribbean Mary poppins indiana jones talk show TLC Nominations Superheroes rt archives Martial Arts festivals DC Comics emmy awards The Walking Dead hidden camera YouTube war Heroines Disney streaming service Arrowverse indie streaming Comic Book nature NYCC versus Kids & Family Elton John psycho 2017 Rom-Com LGBTQ laika zombie Television Academy 4/20 historical drama Apple 21st Century Fox Paramount Infographic latino strong female leads El Rey zero dark thirty BBC America documentaries stand-up comedy hispanic spanish TruTV spanish language Schedule monster movies Video Games VICE game show Warner Bros. independent casting Star Trek ViacomCBS crime thriller AMC Sneak Peek Summer Apple TV+ Holiday trailers Comics on TV Hallmark Christmas movies documentary Creative Arts Emmys women quibi Hear Us Out Marvel Television festival Family new star wars movies Winners Anna Paquin 2015 USA Network Mary Poppins Returns fast and furious Netflix Christmas movies LGBT Hulu A&E Ellie Kemper comiccon Spring TV revenge finale Epix what to watch cooking technology true crime south america fresh Certified Fresh rotten movies we love Marvel Studios The Arrangement stop motion cartoon Hallmark elevated horror 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards CW Seed comic medical drama Crunchyroll 72 Emmy Awards Travel Channel comics BET Awards E3 Chilling Adventures of Sabrina ITV series thriller scorecard children's TV cinemax 45 television Amazon Prime Video christmas movies Comedy Central nbcuniversal news psychological thriller stoner Crackle theme song 2016 Ghostbusters Reality TV One Winter TV SXSW halloween tv TCA Winter 2020 video on demand Awards politics ABC Signature Calendar Television Critics Association Legendary Biopics cars toy story screenings Showtime game of thrones The Purge miniseries period drama criterion Comedy dogs Trophy Talk Character Guide boxoffice 2018 E! Shondaland rotten Trailer high school renewed TV shows GIFs ID IFC razzies Dark Horse Comics diversity telelvision satire NBC Lucasfilm