Over an hour into Michael Mann’s Blackhat I started channeling fearless leader, Clayton Davis. I said to myself, “Self…will I let my shallow love for the alabaster pectorals of one Chris Hemsworth color my perspective of this movie?” Because I get the feeling that Mann, whose camera loves to capture its lead in every state of shirtlessness under the sun, uses the technique to distract the audience from what’s really going on. Well, I refuse to let Mann win with some cheap tactics – although they were MUCH appreciated when this film started to sag under is own weight. Blackhat might interest those who fear Twitter and think that Facebook is going to start charging them, but the movie fails to do anything beyond reiterating that cyberterrorism is real…and it could happen to you!
Superhacker Nicholas Hathaway (Hemsworth) is tasked with finding a man who hacked into a Chinese nuclear reactor, causing an explosion. When the same perpetrator infiltrates the stock market, Hathaway and his team are in a race against time to stop the terrorist before he attacks somewhere else.
Blackhat couldn’t be more timely if it was referenced in hacked Sony emails. The world of cyberterrorism is a gray area quagmire that’s been the source of several documentaries and movies over the last five years, more so in 2014 alone with the one-two punch of CitizenFour and Internet’s Own Boy. Unfortunately those two docs alone do a better job of exploring cyberterrorism and its pros and cons (yes, someone tell Mann that pros to this exist). Instead, much like the younger Hemsworth’s (Liam) turn in Paranoia a few years ago, the overarching message of Blackhat is technology is bad and hacking is bad. But, wait, if hackers are bad than why is our lead a superhot hacker who’s obviously been out in the sun and working out in the gym?
Therein lies the question Blackhat just walks around: What do we want to say about cyberterrorism and how do we say that without coming off like hypocrites? Hathaway is one of those magical populist hackers who, despite serving a fifteen-year prison sentence, justifies his actions by saying he hacked banks who are corrupt. Outside of the nuclear disaster in the first sequence, the movie does little to differentiate greedy thieves using technology to steal money vs. true crimes of cyberterrorism. In one breath Hathaway stands in front of a window declaring “the real hit is yet to come,” a moment that plays like a lead-in to a commercial before an episode of Scandal, but what is this big hit? I won’t spoil it, but the motivations in Chinatown, while not being particularly horrendous, are more detrimental to a wide swath of people than our villains. In effect, this is a slicker version of Harrison Ford’s Firewall! (Hey, Ford was in Paranoia with Liam Hemsworth.)
With such lackluster motivations it makes sense that Mann plays with technology as if it’s only been around for a few years. The opening scene uses the “following the wire” technique of past techno thriller to help us plebs figure out that that box on our table is more than a blinking light show. The actual “technology” moments inside computers are rendered like a saved Windows 96 version of Jezzball met up with a Tron party. Suffice it to say, it looks cheap (and that’s before a serious news segment of the reactor disaster plays a clip with the word “STOCK FOOTAGE” emblazoned on the front). Hathaway and his crew, consisting of Chinese government operative Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) and his sister, Lien Chen (Wei Tang) are considered the best for the job, which is why there are moments where they seem to be “coding of the wind,” standing in a convenient breeze as they plot their next move as the camera whips around them. Oddly enough, Hathaway barely hacks into things; mostly he plays around with cell phones and kicks ass. Guess that’s why he brought two nerds with him.
Blackhat truly thinks it’s cool, and that confidence comes through best in Chris Hemsworth. Let’s get it out of the way: the guy’s gorgeous and the movie REALLY enjoys putting him in shirts missing buttons. Seriously, when he goes to get into a helicopter the shirt is hanging off his shoulders! The film really enjoys putting Hemsworth in situations where he’s half-naked (I’m not complaining), but when those moments aren’t happening the camera captures him looking out windows, acting pensively, or, in our intro to him, breathing heavy and doing push-ups. By the time Viola Davis mentions “dropping the hammer,” you wonder whether Mann is making at joke at his star’s expense or was so in love he didn’t notice it. For his part, Hemsworth is the best part of the movie, and I’m not saying that because of his good looks. He’s a capable leading man, and if this film was better scripted he’d have pulled it off. I’d be interested in seeing him play in a heist or con film where his good looks and charisma would serve a purpose. With this, it’s hard to believe he would know the first thing about remote access ports and the like.
The heavy lifting is meant to be reserved for Wang and Tang. I was excited to see diversity in this film, but the duo are really just those aforementioned nerds that make Hemsworth look better than he is. Wang’s character, Chen, is supposedly Hathaway’s best friend, but outside of one lingering hug – so much lingering happens in this movie whether it’s hugs or stares) – there aren’t many modes of friendship expressed. The two have the majority of their conversations discussing Chen’s sister, played by the lovely Wei Tang. When Chen leaves the film in the third act, the audience starts to realize how unimportant his character is, and yet how much more in-line with the cyber elements of the movie he was. I guess his goal of auditioning for Alan Cummings’ part in Goldeneye, intense pen clicking and all, didn’t work out.
Similarly, the script touts Tang’s character as a serious analyst in her own right, but outside of looking at computer screen’s once or twice, she’s little more than a glorified item for Hathaway to sleep with. Later on, Chen and Hathaway start debating who Lien is going home with, as if she’s a doll being torn in two. She’s so incidental that I honestly thought her name was “Sister” for 80% of the movie as Chen only refers to her as such – I guess the movie thought we’d forget? – while Hathaway never actually says her name outside of one yelled line.
The third act jumps the shark so completely you’d expect Hemsworth to jump said shark than punch it and rip its guts out in mid-air. The crew takes a detour to Malaysia in a scene that’s beautifully shot, if not for the fact it wants us to believe Malaysians have no qualms with people openly carrying and shooting machine guns in packed city streets. By the end, the movie wants you to believe the characters lived happily ever after…with the spoils of cyberterrorism and murder. Yes, regardless of all his good deeds I’m assuming Hathaway’s going back to prison for the wanton violence and death that happens under his watch.
No, Michael Mann, the luscious body of Chris Hemsworth isn’t enough to distract me from this turd. Blackhat is beautifully shot, but the script is so inept, dated, and contradictory. Maybe Mann and crew should have watched a documentary, or, hell, Hackers is a more clearly thought out movie (and it’s got 1990s Angelina Jolie to boot!). This is little more than The Social Network: Marvel Edition. Mann’s created some indelible movies that will be remembered for ages; Blackhat will be forgotten in the amount of time it takes you to refresh your Facebook timeline.