“Blackhat”: The thinker’s thriller

Around the time the anti-nuclear film The China Syndrome was released in 1979, the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor calamity occurred. Similarly, just days before the opening of Universal’s hacking epic Blackhat, the U.S. Central Command’s Twitter account was hacked by ISIS. Not to mention the recent Sony saga, wherein unflattering emails and other sensitive data were laid bare, and North Korea was blamed for this computer hacking. Although the DPRK denied these allegations, North Korea’s Internet system then experienced technical difficulties, with computer outages.

The above cyberattacks seem like publicity stunts to ballyhoo Blackhat. Not even the most inventive Hollywood press agent could conjure up the PR bonanza Universal is enjoying, free of charge, with Blackhat opening Jan. 16 amidst these hack attacks. But instead of instigating promotions, it seems that director Michael Mann and screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl have their proverbial fingers on the pulse – not to mention the digital Zeitgeist.

While many action-packed blockbusters full of explosions and nonstop violence are merely mindless “entertainment” and escapist flicks, with their two hour-plus stylish, cinematic work Mann and Foehl have created the thinker’s thriller. In it, Chris Hemsworth, who has played Thor in the Marvel movie versions of the Norse God of Thunder, proves he can also portray an action hero outside of a superhero costume. His Nicholas Hathaway is a Dirty Dozen-like computer genius whom authorities release from prison to help them stop an über hacker who has caused a Three Mile Island-like disaster in China.

Along the way Hathaway hooks up with American and Chinese agents and computer whizzes, including Viola Davis as a 9/11-haunted operative, John Ortiz, plus Leehom Wang and Wei Tang as the touching brother-sister team Chen Dawai and Lien Chen. The sprawling movie travels to distant destinations, with great cinematography of Hong Kong, Malaysia and Indonesia: Its location shooting is one of Blackhat‘s strong suits.

Another great thing about Blackhat is how the camerawork creatively, imaginatively visualizes computer hacking in a cinematic manner. At first, given the whole NSA scandal Edward Snowden heroically revealed, as documented in Laura Poitras’ Oscar nominated nonfiction Citizenfour and beyond, this reviewer initially thought Blackhat would be about surveillance, but it’s about that other scourge of the Internet, hacking, instead.

Mann has made socially aware films before, in particular 1999’s The Insider, about an anti-tobacco whistleblower and how “60 Minutes” blew his story, plus his 2001 boxer biopic Ali, a film that pulled no punches and took off the gloves when it came to Muhammad Ali’s resistance to the draft, the Vietnam War, and racism. Blackhat‘s plot moves in unexpected directions as Hathaway, Lien and company try to unravel the mystery of who did the hacking – and more importantly, why?

Although in its form and content Blackhat is thoughtful (if sometimes ponderous and hard to follow), the movie displays Mann’s filmic flair for action. The director brings the same cinematic sensibility to Blackhat‘s riveting shootouts that Mann infused in 2006’s Miami Vice and 1995’s Heat. As in his 1992 The Last of the Mohicans, though, Mann combines action with intelligence.

In that age-old tradition of the Western male romancing the “Oriental” female (can you say “Madame Butterfly?”), Hathaway and Lien inexorably couple up. Although the lovers are filmed in bed together, she is always more or less dressed and beneath blankets or sheets, which seems rather odd, considering the fact that it’s pretty hot outside (apparently hotter than inside). Perhaps this has something to do with the film’s financing and its release in the world’s biggest movie market, China? Tang was far sexier in Ang Lee’s 2007 Lust, Caution, which reportedly caused her to have problems with PRC film officialdom. The apparent effort to curry favor with the Chinese may also explain the depiction of various PRC authorities, officers, agents, etc.

Another curious thing about Blackhat is how the story unfolds in a futuristic world of hi-tech high rises in Hong Kong and elsewhere, but for some reason the characters usually shack up, lie low and hide out in fleabag low-rise dives. The contrasts are stark.  

Nevertheless, by tackling a ripped-from-the-headlines crisis Mann has made the tried and true thriller genre timely and cutting edge, as well as sitting-on-the-edge-of-your-seat exciting. Welcome to the not-so-brave new world of hacking.

Photo: Wikipedia (CC)


CONTRIBUTOR

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Film historian and critic Ed Rampell was named after CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow because of his TV exposes of Sen. Joe McCarthy. Rampell majored in cinema at New York's Hunter College. After graduating, he lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, where he reported on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific movement for "20/20," Reuters, AP, Radio Australia, Newsweek, etc. He went on to co-write "The Finger" column for New Times L.A. and has written for many other publications, including Variety, Mother Jones, The Nation, Islands, L.A. Times, L.A. Daily News, Written By, The Progressive, The Guardian, The Financial Times, and AlterNet.

Rampell appears in the 2005 Australian documentary "Hula Girls, Imagining Paradise." He co-authored two books on Pacific Island politics, as well as two film histories: "Made In Paradise, Hollywood's Films of Hawaii and the South Seas" and "Pearl Harbor in the Movies." Rampell is the author of "Progressive Hollywood, A People's Film History of the United States." He is a co-founder of the James Agee Cinema Circle and one of L.A.'s most prolific film/theatre/opera reviewers.

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