We’re not saying Chris Hemsworth can’t be a genius M.I.T. level coder and a hyper-competent hand-to-hand combatant with preternatural detective skills. But can we believe it? Not even for a second. He sticks out like a sore thumb in a role that is completely outside his range and the already mediocre movie suffers for it.”
Blackhat starts strong. It does a good job of visualising just how frighteningly easy it could be to cause major catastrophes with nothing more than a keyboard and an internet connection in our increasingly networked world. But it’s got some major flaws, and most of them are things anyone making a movie about computers ought to know already. There’s really no way to make staring at lines of code interesting. It doesn’t matter what level of intellect is involved, coding has no impetus. Watching someone type feverishly as nonsense jargon flits by on their screen is boring, no matter what the end result – because there’s too much of a disconnect.
Ironically, Blackhat comes close to utilising this disconnect in its first few hacking scenes. The anonymity of the hacker is scary, because we can’t see the motive. There are potentially world-changing events being caused by a faceless attacker and it’s intimidating to be brought into this world. But it quickly degenerates into clever one-hack-fits-all solutions and lifeless performances by its leads. Tang Wei does her best to fill the mostly dead scenes with a little emotion, but her performance is overwhelmed by all the post-modern detachment and the fact that she’s written to be a prop for Chris Hemsworth’s tortured hacker. The piecemeal and mostly contrived dialogue doesn’t help either. Instead of giving his actors serviceable lines to work with, Mann expects them to just silently emote whatever their character is going through over a bland score.
Like most vaguely political thrillers, the middle drags on in what amounts to an extended montage of surveillance, tracing bank accounts and fruitless chase scenes interspersed with some (admittedly awesome) violence. Two things Michael Mann does well: desolate urban landscapes and hand-held violence. But then the third act is announced with a weird, out of the deep blue 9/11 reference by one of the characters – as if the movie was worried we had forgotten it was about terrorism and needed to remind us in the bluntest way possible.
Here’s a note to any aspiring directors who plan on making a vaguely political thriller: If you’re going to make us wait almost two hours to find out what your villain’s endgame is, at least make it something interesting. If your guy can hack anything in the world, effectively do whatever he wants, including cause nuclear meltdowns and massive stock market crashes, he better have a decent coup-de-grâce planned unless you want your audience to leave the theatre feeling cheated. Likewise, if you establish your antagonist to be exceedingly competent at something, don’t just nix that aptitude when it becomes convenient to your protagonist/plot. It’s cheap and it’s bad storytelling.
Blackhat tries to bring us a new vision of modern terrorism that mostly takes place online and has farther-reaching consequences than any suicide bomber, but it’s forced to fall back on old conventions when it realises that hacking, no matter what way you code it, just isn’t thrilling.