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Hollywood vs hackers: Vulture cracks Tinseltown keyboard cornballs

Cracking code was never like Blackhat in my day

By Michael Moran, 15 Jan 2015

A lot of exciting things are happening online right now. Eye-boggling blocks of code are presently being distilled into art, pornography and weapons of war, and making that distillation look exciting on film would be a challenge for film-makers who thoroughly understood the world of IT.

And, if we’ve learned anything from the recent Sony Studios debacle, and a dozen other Hollywood data haemorrhages, it’s that movie people are as blithely, blissfully uninformed about computers as government ministers, captains of industry, and your nan.

This is probably why most films that feature “hackers” involve an awful lot of very loud, very fast, typing.

And that, regrettably, is about the most realistic aspect of hackers in the movies. As brand new “super hacker” movie Blackhat hits our cinemas on 15 January, let’s browse the history of cyber-punks in cinema.

Blackhat, 2015

The movies started fearing TV almost as soon as it was invented. For example, 1935’s Murder by Television was a particularly subtle example of that. In 2015, the movies fear the internet, and Blackhat is the latest version of that.

It’s based on the premise that data intrusion can blow up nuclear power stations and such, and to be fair that isn’t entirely impossible. An as yet unnamed German steel mill was sabotaged via a phishing attack which compromised essential systems last year. And there’s the worm Stuxnet of course.

But it would be a lucky cyberpunk indeed who happened upon a nuclear facility where the IT manager had been careless enough to provide a connection between the public internet and mission-critical systems. Or maybe not. Everybody makes mistakes.

Luckily for all concerned the hero of Blackhat is Chris “Thor” Hemsworth, who is as familiar with the gym as the server room. Whatever doesn’t get solved with typing gets solved with gunplay and good old-fashioned punches to the head.

Lucy, 2014

Scarlett Johansson embraces glowing girl in scene from LUCY. Copyright: EuropaCorp/ Universal Pictures

Er, unused 90 per cent... hang on, isn't that COMPLETE BULLCRAP?

Scarlett Johansson’s loopy sci-fi actioner isn’t about hacking in the conventional sense. It’s more about “hacking” the human body by dint of an overdose of smart drugs accessing the mythical "unused 90 per cent" of the brain.

But Lucy is noteworthy for one of the best “hacker typing” scenes of recent history, where ScarJo is touch-typing at speeds in excess of 170 wpm on two laptops at once like a mad hybrid of Mavis Beacon and Rick Wakeman. On an aeroplane. Just marvellous.

Sex Tape, 2014

Few moviegoers have first-hand experience of data intrusion, so it’s not such a big deal if certain dramatic liberties are taken with the presentation of such things, as per Sex Tape. But Apple’s iCloud boasts in excess of 320m users. To base an entire script on a wilful misunderstanding of the way it works is little short of outrageous.

If you haven’t seen the 2014 Cameron Diaz and Jason Segal “comedy” first of all, lucky you, but secondly, let me tell you what happens. A jaded married couple video a three-hour sex session on their iPad. Presumably a new 128GB model without much else on it yet. Said video syncs to iCloud overnight, and then squirts itself down onto the iPads of numerous friends, relations, and passing tradesmen that the jaded couple have generously given iPads to. Yeah, with the jaded couple’s iCloud account still set up on it.

This precipitates a madcap series of mini-heists as the still jaded couple try to retrieve the actual iPads in question. Rather than, say, deleting the file and re-syncing. Or overwriting the file with an innocuous (hopefully shorter) dummy video. Or a zillion other things. Reader, I walked out of this one.

Where would we be without the Magic USB stick

Skyfall, 2012

I picked on this one because it’s fresher in many peoples’ minds but I could have picked on almost any Bond flick of the post-internet era. Skyfall’s an example of the cinematic crime of gloriously pretty data visualisation. Real code is (occasionally hilarious bracketed comments aside) profoundly dull to gaze upon.

In one pivotal scene in Skyfall Ben Whishaw (as Q) scrolls through a very cinegenic jumble of code on villain Silva’s captured laptop. Bond (Daniel Craig), who is generally presented in the films as a sort of anti-nerd luddite, spots a word in plain text in the middle of this whirligig of Unix jibber-jabber and uses that as a key to decrypt the whole thing.

Woman looks immensely happy while staring into blank screen of unplugged monitor

No visible cabling? WE love that SH*T here at The Reg... Photo via Shutterstock

That and Silva’s “server farm” that is apparently operating on Japan’s Hashima Island without any kind of cooling or visible cabling. Oh, and the repeated intrusions into M’s laptop that never stimulate a shocked sysop to spirit it away for testing, disinfection, and/or destruction.

And there’s a Stuxnet-inspired gas explosion in this one too.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2014

This most recent entry in Marvel’s all-conquering suite of superhero flicks reprises two popular IT-related conceits. There’s the “personality uploaded into a computer” trope, with a pleasing retro twist. And there’s the Magic USB stick.

The Magic USB stick is a perennially popular meme in modern cinema. The Magic USB stick has all the functionality of an Intel Compute Stick plus some extra tricks from War Games and Lord Of The Rings. Captain America’s one features the ever-popular GUI-powered traceroute function that we know and love from every hacker and phone tapping scene in movie history.

It also works in reverse, phoning home when it’s being accessed. Nothing impossible there, just needlessly pretty. Plus you can’t help thinking that editing the computer’s hosts file to loop the cry for help back might have shaved 20 minutes or so off film's 136 minute run time.

Hackers, 1995

Hack the planet

If you’ve ever seen a film where a computer nerd has about nine monitors all hooked up to one workstation. If you’ve ever seen a film where the screen flashes the words “ACCESS DENIED” and then the nerd types the words “OVERRIDE PASSWORD” as fast and hard as he can for abut 22 seconds, before announcing “We’re in”. If you’ve ever seen a film where hacking involves having as many vaguely videogame-looking windows open as possible and shouting randomly-combined words from Windows 95 For Dummies, then you probably don’t need to see 1995 piffle-festival Hackers.

But see it anyway. It’s really rather droll.

Swordfish, 2001

Named, as far as I can tell, after the password in a Marx Brothers movie, the 2001 IT fantasy Swordfish is notable for casting Hugh Jackman as some sort of computer expert. Six foot, handsome as all get out, socially functional Hugh Jackman. That’s more improbable than all the really fast typing. ®

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