Posted on Tuesday, January 27th, 2015 by Russ Fischer
Bad hacking is everywhere in movies, but there are a handful of films that actually get it right. The problem is that the good stuff isn’t very interesting to look at. Real hackers don’t use virtual reality setups, and they don’t act like Hugh Jackman in Swordfish. Val Kilmer’s line in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is pretty perfect, even though he’s describing being a private detective: “This business, in real life? It’s boring.”
So we don’t see a lot of good hacking on the big screen. Basic terminal windows and UNIX command-line prompts aren’t much to look at. But real (or real enough) stuff shows up on occasion, along with other techniques that work in the real world. They include something as simple as guessing passwords (check out the list of the most commonly-used passwords to realize how easy that can be) and go all the way through various forms of social engineering.
After the break you’ll find not a ranked list of good hackers, but a chronological exploration of movies that show hacking as it is in real life. (Kind of.) What you’ll see is that the good film hackers are pretty consistent, and haven’t changed much through a few decades of filmmaking.
The Worst Examples
First, let’s get the bad stuff out of the way so you know what we’re not talking about. You can throw a rock and hit six bad hacking scenes from movies and TV, but my personal terrible favorite is a scene with an evil hacker mastermind played by Eric Bogosian in Under Siege 2. He seems to understand something about RAM that the rest of us have totally missed. Watch the scene:
How does anyone write that? Screenwriters aren’t dumb, and they can at least consult sources to make sure that the scenes they’re writing are somewhat accurate. There’s always the chance that someone else can dumb down any given scene, but there’s another option, too. Maybe at times the really bad stuff is intentional.
Here’s a Reddit post claiming to be from a writer with experience on CSI:
We write those scenes to be inaccurate and ridiculous on purpose. I’m a young writer in his mid-30’s, computer and game savvy. Lots of us are. I guess you could call it a competition of one-upping other shows to see who can get the best/worst “zoomhance” sequence on the air. Sometimes the exec producers and directors are in on it, and other times we just try to get bits and lines into scripts. 90% of our TV viewing audience will never know the difference and honestly, we love it when threads like this get started and love reading the youtube comments.
That’s an anonymous post, so giving it too much weight isn’t a good idea. But having spent a lot of time working as a props guy and set dresser, I do know that art departments make things fun for themselves whenever possible by adding background details to keep the day feeling lively. I can believe that some writing staffs, especially for shows like NCIS and CSI, might do the same thing.
In this list rundown of terrible hacking, you’ll see some of that in action. Bonus points here for using yet another scene from Under Siege 2.
And then there’s the all-90’s version.
OK, enough of the lousy stuff. Let’s get to the films that have some legit hacking in them. Sadly, there aren’t many.