The German word “zeitgeist’ describes the pervasive intellectual school of an era, the “spirit’ that influences and informs the artistic works of that timeframe. There are numerous times and styles that seem to confirm the idea of the zeitgeist, film in the 1990s being no exception. In specific, action films of the decade seemed to share a delirious optimism, the idea that victory can be achieved against all odds — and 1995’s Hackers is a prime example.
Now, let’s bear in mind that Hackers is not a good film — one can consider it more or less equivalent to the big-budget action films of today. The mess starts with a rotten foundation — its writing. The script of Hackers, intended to fuel a cyberpunk sci-fi thriller, is entirely convoluted and confusing if read by itself. The heroes, a rag-tag group of high school students of varied ethnicity, united by a love of hacking, are vivid but one-dimensional, with uniformly wooden performances all around. The film’s dialog also tends to be mediocre, with an occasional jaunt into cringe-worthiness — though part of this is the fault of the acting in directing, so the writer isn’t completely to blame. There’s some casual sexism to boot; if you’re looking for a film that passes Bechdel, keep looking.
The visual style of Hackers is cranked up to eleven, seemingly in hopes of distracting from the disastrous script. This visual camouflage is probably the reason that the film is remembered fondly, even considered a cult classic, by so many; the visual aesthetic oozes 1990s computer and raver culture to an extreme unmatched by any other film. The teenage protagonists of Hackers, supposedly of the early computing subculture, dress more like members of the decade’s prolific “rave’ and club scene, with mixtures of leather, hypercolor, and the occasional thrift-store tee shirt. Their hairstyles range from dreadlocks to close-cropped and spiked hair, with little visual consistency between any two members of the cast. And, this being the ‘90s, the entire main cast either rides rollerblades or skateboards.
So consider that, despite its garish visuals, thumping 1990s electronic soundtrack, and abysmal writing, Hackers manages to be delightfully nostalgic, glaringly dated and oddly prescient. Almost every technical aspect of Hackers is overtly wrong, from the rendition of virus code, to the customized graphics and interfaces on each of the heroes’ computers, to the villain computer, The Gibson. The divide between computers in theory and in practice is part of what made Hackers science fiction at the time, as reflected in so much of the film’s action — from listing a credit card as overdrawn, to adding hundreds of DUIs to a criminal record, to changing an employee record to incorrectly indicate the death of the employee. Although these the realm of cyberpunk fantasy in the 1990s, and despite the film’s ignorance of technical details, Hackers manages to be strangely clairvoyant regarding the technology of today. In the modern era, where major data security breaches occur at least monthly and cars can be hacked remotely to disable their brakes, the meat of Hackers seems not only conceivable, but likely. The march of technology has turned Hackers from a near-future sci-fi thriller to a recent-past conventional thriller with a poor eye for detail — and an inexplicable fixation on pagers.
All of this is to say that even the stupidest, most period-specific media may have some redeeming value to it. Media’s potential is what we in the media industry make of it — if we want smarter, more emotionally resonant, or (in the case of Hackers) stronger messages in our work, then that is for us to do — and the rest of society to enjoy.