In recent years, Hollywood has taken a shine to hackers, with hackers appearing in almost every heist or mystery movie now. This can be both good and bad for our profession. As we know, whichever way Hollywood decides to depict our profession is how most people will perceive it.
The good news is that not all of Hollywood’s depictions of hackers are negative, despite the overwhelming perception by the masses that our profession is a malicious one.
In trying to determine the ten best hacker movies, I tried to only use those films where people are actually entering into other peoples’ or organizations’ computers for good or ill. Very often, reviewers of this genre include any movie with computer “stuff” as a “hacker movie.” In my definition of a hacker movie, someone must be using advanced skills to access someone else’s computer, without their consent or knowledge, for good or ill.
In addition, I evaluated the movies based upon plot, acting, directing and, most importantly, how they portrayed hackers. They got extra points if they portrayed the hackers as the “good guys,” have female hackers in opposition to the male geek archetype, and even more points if the hacking represents something close to reality.
Takedown (also known as Trackdown) is a B-grade movie—a fictionalized and sensationalized account of the tracking and capture of probably the most infamous U.S. hacker, Kevin Mitnick. Based upon the book and written by his nemesis, Tsutomu Shimomura, the story tends to glorify Shimomura. Mitnick operated in the 1980s and ’90s and eventually went to prison for a couple of years. Now, he is a highly paid IT security consultant, speaker, and writer.
This movie has low production values, despite having some relatively well-known actors (Skeet Ulrich, Tom Berenger, and Amanda Peet, among others). Don’t expect to learn much hacking from this movie, though, as nearly the entire 1 hour and 36 minutes is a story about tracking down Kevin Mitnick as the FBI and Shimomura searches for him across the states.
In Swordfish, Hugh Jackman plays a retired, elite hacker who has been released from a long prison term and is now working in the oil fields and living in a trailer. He is approached by an organized crime figure played by John Travolta, and is forced to do one last hacking job against his will.
Unfortunately, the hacking is forgettable and far from reality. Jackman’s character is seen breaking into highly secure systems within seconds, while gyrating geometric objects appear on his screen. Very little depiction of the actual hard work that goes into hacking is seen, and they make it look like a computer game.
The most memorable part of this movie is Halle Berry’s topless scene. Although it has nothing to do with hacking, it does make this movie memorable.
Although the MINI Coopers are really the stars of The Italian Job (a remake of the 1969 film of the same name), Seth Green plays Lyle, a hacker among a group of elite thieves, who is able to manipulate traffic signals, among other devices, that make this grand theft possible. Could this hacker have been using Shodan to identify and assist in hacking these devices?
Although not true to the detail, it does portray hacking with some realism. I really like the concept that ALL digital devices are susceptible to hacking, not just computer systems.
The Fifth Estate is an unauthorized account of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. Cumberbatch plays a believable Assange as a egotistical, idealist that is out to change the world. Few Americans know that Assange is a famous (or infamous) hacker in his native country of Australia. He broke into the Pentagon, Citibank, NASA, and Stanford University, among other facilities, before being caught.
WikiLeaks was founded to provide a safe place for whistleblowers to make secret state information available to the world when that information reveals the ill deeds of powerful governments. They were responsible for the leaks regarding U.S. military abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in other places.
Although little hacking takes place in this movie, it is an important film for the hacking community as it depicts how hacking can potentially change the world history, as I’m sure it will.
Ghost in the Shell is a classic Japanese anime film that depicts a future (probably mid-21st century) where humans are part flesh and blood and part bionic. Many people have cyber brains that are part electronic and part grey matter. This cyber brain enhances their cognitive abilities and allows them to plug into larger networks. This is an intriguing concept that is likely to become reality in the very near future.
The story is about a special operations task force that is part-police and part-military. The lead character is female officer whose body was destroyed as young girl and has been replaced by a beautiful bionic body. The hacking in this futuristic tale is the even more malicious variety of hacking, the hacking of the human mind.
In Sneakers, Robert Redford and Ben Kingsley portray two young hackers whose lives take two different directions after their playful hacking leads to the arrest of Kingsley’s character. They meet again some thirty years later when one (Kingsley) is working for the bad guys and the other (Redford) isn’t sure who he’s working for when he’s forced to comply upon threat of his true identity being revealed.
The plot revolves around a new encryption algorithm that would make electronic communication secure. The NSA plays the bad guys who want the encryption algorithm so that they can spy on everyone. The movie was ahead of its time in that respect.
The fourth installment in the Die Hard series, Live Free or Die Hard, depicts a scenario where a hacker played by Timothy Olyphant (of Justified fame) takes down nearly the entire U.S. infrastructure in an attempt to transfer trillions of dollars from the Federal Reserve to his account.
As I believe this type of infrastructure hack is one of the most important issues in national security, it gets kudos from me. Watching Bruce Willis ride outside of a Harrier Jump Jet to take down the bad guys is simply laughable, though. Another notable moment in this movie is the portrayal by Justin Long as the good guy hacker employed by Willis’ cop character to assist in stopping the bad guys. You probably remember him from the iconic “Mac vs. PC” ads.
This classic 1983 hacker move WarGames depicts a young teenage bedroom hacker played by Matthew Broderick who almost starts World War III. By war-dialing, he is able to get unencumbered access to the Department of Defense’s nuclear missile launch controls.
The hacker is portrayed as a playful, rather than malicious, and knowledgeable teenager who inadvertently hacks into critical DoD systems.
Noomi Rapace portrays The Girl with with Dragon Tattoo (I prefer the original Swedish version to the Hollywood version) superbly. She is a young woman, recently released from prison for a crime of passion in her youth. She has been traumatized by the corrections and probation system and is probably showing signs of mild autism. As a way of earning an income, she works as hacker for hire for a private investigator. This leads her into the path of Mikael, a middle-aged investigative writer who is being unfairly persecuted by a diabolical wealthy industrialist.
Her hacking is critical to revealing the identity of the true evil-doer. Although the hacking is oversimplified, it is far more realistic than most films, even if she is using a Mac. She works from a command line terminal and there are scenes showing the Unix/Linux file structure.
In Hackers, Angelina Jolie and Johnny Lee Miller (they were married after the making of this movie) portray two youthful and hip hackers. Miller (now of the Sherlock Holmes TV spinoff, Elementary) portrays a hacker who got caught as a very young child (11) after crashing thousands of computers and has been sentenced to zero computer access until his 18th birthday.
The hacking is relatively realistic, although a bit dated. The film was made in 1993, but the technology looks to be mid- to late-1980s. It gets points for portraying hackers as the good guys (thwarting the plans of the evil corporation) and as hip, rather than nerds.
What do think? Did I miss any great hacking flicks?