Stop Writing Computer Hackers!

I never want to see computer hacking in a movie ever again.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
-Arthur C. Clarke.

I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here: it didn’t require any discipline to attain it.
-Ian Malcolm.

Computer hacking in movies is so often just magic. Boom, something impossible happened. Who cares? It undermines the human story: that curiosity and bravery are noble traits. It removes struggle. And if you don’t struggle, you don’t truly earn something.

I currently live on an island. When I recently had occasion to visit the mainland, I eagerly took the opportunity to catch a couple of movies I had been desperate to see in theatres: Jurasssic World Fallen Kingdom, and Ocean’s 8 (about whose predecessor I have written at length). I must say while of course I loved JPark and O-8 and I’ll eat them up no matter what in this gutless era of unnecessary sequels, I was quite disappointed with the computer hacking aspects of both. I am so done with computer hacking in films. Contemporary screenwriters have shown themselves utterly unfit to wield that power.

 

Please forgive me for saying this, but THIS is the reason I have missed the train to Hogwarts. As soon as there is a struggle to go through in Harry Potter, the answer is always “don’t worry, because here’s something you never knew about magic that will completely solve this problem for you, silly billy!”

Similarly in The Hunger Games I find it almost impossible to care, because they have already stipulated a world in which there is a holographic technology available that can apparently just… create stuff out of thin air, I.e. weather, killer dogs, force fields and so on. Yawn. Why would the rebellion bother doing anything else but capture this technology and solve all their problems by just… zapping stuff?

In the original Jurassic Park film, yes there was a hacker, but she didn’t have godlike powers. She wasn’t fast. She barely knew what she was doing. She was forced to her breaking point by the impending raptor attack. She was scared to death. She got there in the end because of curiosity and bravery, two awesome character qualities that helped her grow from her role as the mere screaming child to a contributing member of the team.
lex
Compare this heroism with Justice Smith in JP4 Fallen Kingdom, who is ..how shall we say.. very 2018, in his sarcastic and ironical observations, and is pulled along for the difficult ride not because he can contribute to the mission, but because he happens to own a magic laptop that does a magic thing when he clicks the Enter key that magically opens a couple of doors they need to open. He does not struggle, he is not curious, he is the opposite of brave, and he spends the entire movie screaming (with comical intent) and needing to be rescued. He does not grow. He does not contribute anything because (and this is key) it’s 2018 for fuck’s sake, and there’s no excuse for having characters too stupid to operate technology anymore. Grr. He is here just to say “poof, see, magic! Ooooo!”, and it isn’t earned by the rest of the writing.

In the 1980s and 1990s, computers were still only something that curious people were into. They were NOT for everybody, and they took discipline and hefty investment to understand, and you were probably going to be called a nerd and get bullied. And writing a character in this situation is fine. It’s great, in fact. These are my people!

But now in 2018 times have changed, friend! Technology now is for EVERYBODY, because the market has exploded. Technology runs the world. Technology is no longer about specialisation, that only the specialised few can understand. No, it’s about getting every single person to own a device (or four) and be able to use it. What kind of amusement park would let a computer programmer install a system that any dumb staff member couldn’t immediately figure out? To paraphrase your friend and mine, Dr. Sheldon Cooper, IN WHAT UNIVERSE IS THE CEO OF A COMPANY (Bryce Dallas Howard) NOT QUALIFIED TO CLICK ‘OPEN DOORS’ ON THE JURASSIC PARK DOOR-OPENING COMPUTER?
sheldon

It’s 2018. My mum has a touchscreen phone, for chrissakes.

Compare this JP4 treatment of hacking with the only other thing I have seen Justice Smith in, the 2016 film Paper Towns, where he plays a kid obsessed with an online world similar to Wikipedia. His key trait is curiosity in the face of ignorance. By pursuing his curiosity he provides a key clue in tracking down Margot, and then has to have the courage to follow through in the challenging offline world of losing your virginity and crashing your friend’s mom’s car.

In the new Ocean’s film, yes, it’s a good film, but I can’t stand the hacking nonsense written for Rihanna’s character Nineball. I’m sorry. I’m really glad she’s in it. I’m REALLY glad they’re all women. But Nineball has a scene where she enters a house and almost immediately has hacked into the entire power company in order to switch the lights off in that one particular building. Overkill… and it is showing us right away that she has godlike powers. It’s just plopped in our lap: OOOO MAGIC! So if this person can hack anything in a matter of seconds and there are no consequences, why do we need a movie about con artists who’s main thing is social engineering? Why do we need to steal physical objects? Why are they targeting jewellery? Why is this amazing godlike hacker not just moving bitcoin or stocks? Fuck offffffffffffff, screenwriters!

Compare Nineball’s godlike couch-bound hacking to Livingstone Dell in Ocean’s Eleven. His hack isn’t just sitting at his screen grinning with superiority over the plebs of the world. His “hack” is literal, and requires overcoming a great deal of insecurity and peril. He has to break into a real room and escape in disguise and play it cool, something he is terrible at. It doesn’t give him godlike powers. There isn’t a master computer that controls the whole casino that he can access with a magic laptop, to press Enter and have everything start spitting money at them. All it does is alter a video camera feed enough to get a teammate into an elevator. And later, re-route one phone call and one security camera.

Modern computer hacking is so often just depicted as magic. I hate it.

Imagine if Star Wars hadn’t mentioned The Force at all. If Vader had never choked anybody, Ben hadn’t waved his hand, and Han hadn’t been sceptical. If they never mentioned Luke was a good pilot like his father. Imagine if they just cut right to the end of the movie, with Luke shooting bendy torpedoes down a hole and dodging every laser blast easily. It’d just be nonsense. If they never explained what he had to go through in order to master that power, that character would just be godlike and invincible, so why bother caring?

Imagine if Neo, another prominent film hacker (of his virtual reality) had been accidentally stopping bullets, cheating death, and leaping tall buildings at the start of The Matrix. What could the Agents do to him if he had all the magical powers already? Why be curious? Why try to find Morpheus? Why struggle to save humanity? Why bother?

Why bother?

Imagine if David Levenson had had a wireless hookup with the alien mothership from the beginning of Independence Day. Why bother flying a ship into their den? Why bother having characters in danger? Why have Will Smith and President Whitmore going into a dogfight? If David was hooked up right away and could send the alien mothership to crash into the sun, well, why bother with anything that’s in that movie?
dave

If you don’t have limits to overcome, you don’t have a story. The human tale, the story of transcendence, begins with curiosity (the call to adventure, or a new world), moves into bravery (the second act, where all is in peril), and ends with maturity (riding into the sunset).

The film WarGames, the mother of all computer hacking movies, exemplifies this fucking brilliantly. David Lightman is childishly curious about playing some new computer games, and uses extremely difficult and inefficient brute force methods to try and hack his way into a computer that inadvertently starts World War Three. The rest of the film is spent with him struggling to be brave in the real world where he feels out of place, and find a solution to a computer problem that refuses to be solved. Eventually, symbiotically, both human and machine transcend their previous beliefs and arrive at maturity together. The machine learns not to play World War Three, and the humans learn not to give anybody, or anything, godlike powers.
joshua.jpg

This godlike computer hacking nonsense is the reason Die Hard 4 struggles. The entire world is being shut down by a bunch of dudes in the back of a truck with apparently the best WiFi in the universe, and it kind of seems like they just decided to throw it all together that morning. Similarly this magic hacking is the reason for the staggering gulf in quality between the jeopardy-filled The Fast and The Furious (the first film where Jessie dies and Dom crashes his one and only Dodge Charger) and the later ones where they are remote controlling…sigh…a submarine, and doing all kinds of insanely invincible computer generated driving with unlimited resources. Imagine if in The Lord of The Rings Gandalf simply called up 9 giant eagles to fly to Mount Doom and they didn’t have to fight a single orc. Imagine if they had an amazing sonar screen as big as the entire Atlantic Ocean in The Hunt For Red October. Imagine if Tom Hanks’ plane had a big fuck-off-sized GPS hacking beacon on it instead of a Wilson volleyball in Cast Away. Imagine if Maverick’s plane could get a missile lock without needing to get on anybody’s tail in Top Gun. Imagine if Titanic was made out of self-repairing steampunk nanobots all along. Ultimately, at the higher end of these transgressions we are basically just talking about Deus ex machina, where the solution appears so out of left field that it would negate the whole story and we can shrug our shoulders and just say ‘Meh, God did it’ and fuck off merrily into this good night without learning a damn thing. And do not EVEN START WITH ME on the ridiculous Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. Fuck offfffffffff, screenwriters!

In conclusion, computer hacking is just ‘magic’. We don’t need magic in our stories.

We need curious humans who are willing to take on the struggle.

Because that’s who we are.

2 Responses to Stop Writing Computer Hackers!

  1. Chris says:

    I’m a Computer Science student and hacking in movies does 2 things for me:
    1. it’s annoying because everybody thinks that it’s that easy and fast so I could just help them with some information security problem they have (no I can’t). Or that I can repair their computer hardware or solve every problem they are going to have with their computer ever.
    2. It makes me sad to compare what is possible for the people in movies and what is possible in real life. It would be so cool to just see a source code without any comments and just understand the whole Programm by looking at the code for 2 seconds.

    I would love to see more “real” hacking were you can manage to do just SOME things and it would take forever to accomplish that. But getting control of EVERY system in a matter of seconds is boring and like you said often used as a deus ex machina / excuse for poor writing.

    I like older films where just some people could handle computers and they were called freaks for that because if you really want to be THAT GOOD with computers you must dedicate your whole life to this. In some movies / tv series nowadays it is just like a normal person is like “oh yeah, I can help you with that, I never mentioned it but I’m actually a genius master-hacker”.

    Like you wrote, in real life everybody should at least be able to klick on the “door open button” but there are very many people I know that are really bad with technology (not only old people): they would find the button but they could do nothing more.

    (I’m not an English native so I’m sorry if there are any mistakes in my text.)

  2. Andrew says:

    Thanks a lot for your comment, Chris. Let’s just cut to the chase here and watch one of the greatest film computer hackers ever seen. Truly a freak who dedicated his life to it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mIq9jFdEfZo

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