In the marvellous world of Hollywood movies, certain character types seem predestined to an outcome: in movies, valiant boxers are prone to comebacks, jazz musicians will end up playing a staggering improv show, and almighty hackers will, unstoppably, wreak havoc. A hacker’s capacity to generate digital chaos is unmatched: In most films, hackers are mysteriously bright subjects who can move pieces of a computer jigsaw and create consequences at will. Guarded by their dim-lit workspaces and under the helm of their worn-out hoodies, these incredibly clever computer scientists can swiftly uncover virtual worlds, lead governments to the brink of World War III, or help develop the first versions of Skynet. The catch-all hacker from the movies can save the world or finish it — with nothing in between.
So if you’re down to watch how some hackers shift scenarios to their will (but don’t care to know how they even do it), we listed the best hacker films you can’t miss. It’s a chance to do reverse engineering and understand how hackers get so close to being all-powerful beings. From Hollywood productions or not, the best heroes (or villains?) in hoodies are all here:
1. WarGames (1983)
Could a hacker movie from the pre-World Wide Web era become a smash hit in the box office, gather nominations to the Oscars, and influence the cybersecurity agenda of the President of the United States? Yes. That’s what WarGames did when it was released in 1983.
WarGames tells the story of a high school student, played by Ferris Bueller's Day Off’s Matthew Broderick, that, while fooling around, accesses a NORAD military supercomputer and brings the United States pretty darn close to nuclear war with the Soviet Union. WarGames allegedly popularized the modem and influenced the agenda of the then-President Ronald Reagan and the U.S. Congress, who passed a cybersecurity bill and security directives in the 80s. Were there any hoodies back in 1983? It seems like not yet.
2. Ghost in the Shell (1995)
What if you could hack someone else’s consciousness? Set in a near-future where cybernetic replacements can fill in body parts, Ghost in the Shell (1995), the cyberpunk anime staple directed by Mamoru Oshii, follows the story of a cyborg police agent who attempts to uncover the dense criminal schemes of Puppet Master, a mysterious outlaw who hacks — and bends — consciousness at their will.
The “ghost in the shell” refers to the enclosed consciousness (the ghost) within a body (a shell). An essential neo-noir cyberpunk crossover between Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner (1982) and William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer (1984), Ghost in the Shell deepens the divine perceptions around hackers — but with a philosophical veil to it.
3. Takedown (2000)
In cybersecurity matters, what’s the weakest link between remaining secure and being hacked? The controversial hacker — and social engineer — Kevin Mitnick will probably say that the weakest link is the human link. Called “the most notorious hacker of all time,” Mitnick has accessed secure systems from Big Tech companies by the art of the con: he has lured people into providing him access to companies’ secure networks with various social engineering techniques, therefore bypassing the most sophisticated cybersecurity measures.
The 2000 film Takedown (also known as Track Down) follows his digital face-off with Tsutomu Shimomura, who around 1996 outsmarted Mitnick and his cybercrimes and facilitated the hacker’s conviction. The film still lacks a conventional — if essential — warning: Don’t try this at home.
4. The Interview (2014)
Distributed by Sony Pictures, this 2014 black comedy co-directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg — and starring the reliable sidekick James Franco — follows the story of two journalists who secure an interview with the infamous North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. But, in a rare twist, they are then press-ganged by the CIA to conduct the interview and then assassinate the leader.
There's also a scene about Honeypot in there!
Yes, journalists, dictators, and the CIA — so where’s the hacker here? In 2014, a group of hackers accessed Sony’s computer systems and leaked several unreleased films. To stop the attack, the hackers demanded Sony to shelve “the movie of terrorism.” According to the FBI, the hacker group had ties with North Korea and conducted the hacking activity due to The Interview. It seems like a good script for a new movie.
5. Swordfish (2001)
Chaos-inducing Hollywood hackers are incredibly similar to hermit superheroes — lone wolves who won’t allow people near them because they’re just too powerful and dangerous. They can also be in great physical shape, like if they were fit outlaws from neo-western films. So when the heist movie Swordfish (2001) cast Hugh Jackman, better known as X-Men’s Wolverine, to play the protagonist hacker, why would anyone roll their eyes?
Swordfish tells the story of a convicted computer maestro who has been barred from accessing the Internet (!) or using computers and who is tapped for a bank robbery due to his second-to-none hacking skills. If there was ever a scenario for Hollywood to flex, “our hackers can do anything they want,” even despite having a restraining order that prevents them from touching a keyboard, and even for all the investments bank make on their information security.
6. The Matrix Trilogy (1999-)
It’s actually really hard to draw the line between what constitutes a hacking film. I mean what technically counts? Is it simply having a hacker in the movie? Or does the whole film have to revolve around a hacker or hacking event? Hard to say. This list so far features a bit of both, which I think is fair. But this next one I think we can all agree is solely based on hacking.
If you don’t know the Matrix, well, you’re probably living in it...I don’t even know where to start with this one. First of all, the whole thing is based around a programmer, played by Keanu Reeves, who works some boring office job while at night hacks under the alias, Neo. His whole world is turned upside down when he "red pills" himself and leaves the Matrix, a computer-simulated world in which machines have enslaved humans. Go watch the film! I’m not going to go into it any further cause we all know how badass this movie is. And if you're like me, you're also patiently waiting for the 4th installment in the series. It better live up to the hype...
[UPDATE] The 4th one sucks, I couldn't even get through the first act. Thanks for ruining my childhood Warner Brothers :(
No list is going to be perfect so don't come at me if I missed one of you're favourite hacking films. Just drop a comment though and I'll consider adding it to the list — these were just some of the top films I've seen.
I know Honeypot's all about developer documentaries, but I think it would also be cool if they started getting into the film biz. What do you think?