There was a time when super cool hackers were the villains of every big dumb action movie because it seemed like a moderately hip thing to do. Then there was a time when everyone actually started using computers and realized how utterly ridiculous those dumb hacker plots were and it all went away. Then Edward Snowden happened. Now Enemy Of The State’s most outlandish element is the idea that Will Smith could father sane children. So, it was inevitable that there would be a return to cyber thrillers and now we have the first one in Blackhat. The movie also marks the return of the once great Michael Mann (Heat, Manhunter) to the director’s chair after six years and stars none other than Thor (his human name is Chris Hemsworth). So, hey! Maybe this one will be good. Maybe it won’t be another one of those movies where characters spend most of the screen time standing around a laptop explaining the plot to each other. Maybe the time is right for someone to make one of these movies feel frighteningly real. Or maybe it will just be a boring trudge through all the usual hacker thriller clichés with only the use of smart phones to distinguish it from 90s techno thriller nonsense. Actually, who am I kidding? Blackhat will definitely be that last one.
Chris Hemsworth stars as a hacker who is like totally the best at hacking and stuff and even super dangerous. He’s locked up in prison for a variety of cybercrimes, like some sort of Hannibal Lector who knows C++. Trouble starts a brewin’ when an even more evil hacker robs a bunch of money because of the stock market and stuff. The US government’s cybercrime team (led by Viola Davis and her ridiculous wig) gets super scared because this new hacker guy’s really good. They need help. Luckily one of Davis’ lackeys was college roommates with Hemsworth and notices that the new cyberterrorist is using Hemsworth’s old code. So, a deal is cut and Hemsworth is released under the stipulation that the former evil cyberterrorist will help bring down the newer, eviler cyberterrorist. From there, it’s time for a series of scenes of people standing around laptops talking about how dramatic and suspenseful everything is supposed to be. Eventually there are guns and things blow up and that’s all shot and executed very well because Michael Mann knows how to do such things. But by then it’s hard to care. The movie’s dragged on for ages and oh my God, is this thing actually going to stretch past the two-hour mark? Answer: yes it is. End of plot summary.
The big problem with Blackhat is the problem that no filmmaker has ever managed to fully overcome: the challenge of making a group of people starring at a computer screen seem remotely exciting. It doesn’t matter how many shots are cut together or how wacky the camera angles get, that’s just some inherently un-cinematic stuff. Michael Mann is of course a consummate visual stylist whose influence has been so profound that his movies don’t look that distinct anymore. So, he does everything he can to make the endless typing/hacking scenes exciting, but it’s a fool’s errand (even when he resorts to Matrix-style “follow the electronic information” digital tracking shots). Admittedly, Mann does put a little more effort into ensuring that the hacking and techno-babble is more plausible than usual. But unfortunately screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl (whose previous biggest credit is, I’m not joking, the additional editor on I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry) delivered a story so inert and characters so indistinct that there’s nothing Mann can do. Sure, he has Hemsworth and co. speak in quiet measured tones so that we think we’re supposed to take it all quite seriously and everyone is dressed very fashionably, but none of that changes the fact that Blackhat is a big dumb thriller masquerading as art and failing to even offer much in the way of pop entertainment.
The movie does look rather pretty though and since that’s why most of Mann’s fans primarily adore in his work, there will likely be apologists. However, it will take a particularly strong Michael Mann apologist to excuse such absurdity as a 6+ foot Hemsworth with a Thor-sized body somehow sneaking around the streets and airports of Indonesia undetected because he’s wearing sunglasses. That’s just stupid action movie contrivance and you can’t pull that sort of thing off in a movie trying so desperately to be taken seriously. Now, it should be noted that there are a couple of good action scenes squeezed into the movie and Mann’s remarkable talent for staging cinematic action has not diluted in the slightest. The trouble is that in a movie as inane, tiresome, and forgettable as Blackhat, those big set pieces only serve as a reminder of all the better movies that exist that you could be watching instead. Blackhat is far from the worst movie ever made, but it is the worst movie that Michael Mann’s ever made. Given how long he takes between projects, it’s hard to watch Mann stumble like this knowing there will be a long wait before his inevitable recovery. The best approach is simply not to see Blackhat at all. No good will come of it and at least you’ll never have the memories to scrape out of your brain.