The 5 Best Hacker Movies
In this list we are presenting to you our five favorite hacker movies. The genre originates in the early 80s and since then, many great movies that deal with computer hacks and the cyber world have been produced. But all of them have to face the problem to transform something as abstract as computer viruses, software, or code to the big screen. We have to admit, sitting in front of a computer and typing something is not as exciting as a wild car chase. Often, hacking is illustrated by animations with sequences of numbers flying through a dark space, or the camera seemingly traveling into the insides of a computer. The computer geek sitting in front of a pc and typing like a maniac – in the ideal case we can even see a cryptic sequence of letters or numbers that is mirrored in his glasses – is also a popular trope.
Technical knowledge and logic sometimes have to be put aside in favor of suspense and understandability. But a good hacker movie nonetheless shows us the possibilities and dangers of the cyber world. It opens our eyes and lets us experience a world that by now affects all spheres of our lives.
5. Tron (1982) / Tron: Legacy (2010)
The cult movie Tron and its sequel Tron: Legacy share the fifth position in this list. The first one is probably the better movie, but it was a little bit ahead of its time by its release. Still, by now it has a large fan base. The sequel from the year 2010 is more appealing to the eye when considering our changed viewing habits. But, is weaker in terms of the story.
In the first part the protagonist – software engineer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) – tries to prove that his former boss at a gaming company stole his game designs and used them as his own. He tries to enter the digital network of the company, but something goes wrong. He is hit by a laser beam and finds himself, as a digital version of himself, in the digital world of the computers – in cyber space. There, with the help of the program Tron, he tries to deactivate the ultimately evil Master Control Program. At the same time he is fighting for his digital survival in a computer game.
Tron: Legacy had its premiere almost 30 years later. In this film the 27 year old Sam (Garrett Hedlund) follows his father Flynn (Jeff Bridges again) into this world by mistake. There he has to face different challenges in the highly changed cyber world. Tron and Tron: Legacy design a fascinating cyber world, in which programs are alive and codes have humanoid form. Instead of visualizing a hack by ones and zeros or animated tracking shots into the computer, the whole cyber world is depicted and looks like our own world. The hacker becomes the virus in this scenario, because he enters the IT-system and tries to change it from the inside.
4. Who am I (2014)
A German and more recent contribution to the topic with Elyas M’Barek, Tom Schilling and Hannah Herzsprung. The movie tells Benjamin’s story. He is an insecure but intelligent guy with a bad childhood, because of the early loss of his parents. As a talented hacker he gains momentum when he meets the charismatic criminal Max at court ordered community service. Together with two other friends of Max’ they form the hacker group CLAY.
After several hacks that were designed to give them recognition in the darkweb they plan to hack an institution that would definitely earn them recognition: the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND). The mission is a success, but Benjamin decides to also steal confidential staff files. When shortly after that a murder takes place that can be linked to the BND hack, CLAY becomes entrapped in affairs that go way beyond their initial objective. Who am I is a suspenseful thriller with surprising twists. It even caught the attention of Warner Bros, which is planning an American version of the movie.
3. Sneakers (1992)
Although Sneakers (with Roberd Redford, River Phoenix, Dan Aykroyd, David Strathairn) is mostly a heist movie, it also has many elements of a hacker movie. It is about data theft, security gaps and political conspiracy. In the first scenes, we see two students, who hack President Nixon’s bank account for fun, and transfer money to a committee for the legalization of Marihuana. One of them is arrested shortly after, the other one escapes. After a time laps of more than 20 years we see the one who escaped – Marty – working as a hacker for companies who want to test their security systems. He and his team hack the security systems, or break into the stores of their clients, to find possible security gaps.
When the alleged NSA contacts them with an assignment, everything spins out of control. They find themselves trapped in a conflict where information is worth more than ammunition: “It’s not about who got the most bullets. It’s about who controls the information.” This film shows how our society is changing through digitalization. It is exciting and suspenseful and lives through its funny and lively characters.
2. WarGames (1983)
Apart from Tron, WarGames is one of the first hacker movies and therefore is groundbreaking for the genre. As in many hacker movies the hacker is not the villain, at least not intentionally. David Lightman, a high school student, hacks into the system of a computer game publisher to play a game before its release. He stumbles across the application “Global Thermonuclear War” and starts it without knowing that he is not in the systems of the gaming company anymore, and that the application is not a game, but reality.
The movie was released in 1983 during the Cold War, so it directly responds to real fears of the audience. What begins as a movie about a bored student develops into a war movie, in which a strike against the Soviet Union is initiated. When David is interrupted by his parents, the self-learning system WORP takes over. Now a race against time begins, in which the scientist who programmed WORP have to teach it the foolishness of this nuclear war, in order to stop it. This movie shows what damage one person can cause, when the line between reality and virtual reality is not clear.
1. Matrix (Part 1, 1999)
One could ask if Matrix counts as a hacker movie. But of course it does. The main character Neo (Keanu Reeves) is introduced as a hacker and on a symbolic level Matrix is a hacker movie through and through. Because, Neo is the protagonist in the biggest hack thinkable. He has to hack what everybody around him perceives as reality, to free humanity from the computers which took over control. Again, the hacker is the good guy in this futuristic scenario, who tries to safe everybody from the clutch of artificial intelligence.
Matrix is our number one, because it branded itself into our collective memory with its trend-setting visuals. Even if you have no idea about hacking, programing, or software, the movie manages to carry you away. Everybody who saw the film will forever remember the floating green numbers in front of a black background that visualize the matrix – and at least every male viewer will remember the mistake in the matrix, the woman in red. The question of what is real and what isn’t is taken to extremes in this excellent movie. It becomes clear that answering this question does not become easier in our digitalized age with artificial intelligence that competes with our own, human intelligence.
Outside the Competition: Zero Days (2016)
A very recent movie about our cyber world is the documentary Zero Days that premiered at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. It is a movie about cyberwar which illustrates in a striking way how our life is dominated by IT-systems, and how easy it can be infiltrated and attacked if you have the know-how. At the center of this movie is the cyber-attack against the Iranian nuclear program in 2010. This film tries to proves beyond doubt, that the US and Israeli government are behind the attack – even though both parties still deny it. The computer worm Stuxnet disabled and destroyed centrifuges that enrich uranium at a nuclear site in Natanz. The technicians on site had no idea what was happening.
The decision who are the good guys and who are the bad guys is not as easy to make, as in the other fictitious examples in this list. The question remains, whether it is ok to launch a cyberwar against a country, perhaps to avoid a real, nuclear war. This documentary gives a fascinating and alarming insight into what can happen in an actual cyberwar – or better: what already happened.
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