Michael Mann provokes some extreme reactions in people, especially film critics tasked with defending or refuting the auteur’s visionary filmmaking.Blackhat will not prove an exception in this arena. Its flaws will be highlighted, its defenders will justify them away, and the larger mainstream audience will remain mostly unaware of this heated debate and simply dismiss the film for its obvious, embarrassing gaffes. And then, as we’ve seen with other Mann films, it will be championed in about 5, 6, or more years to come. One of the things those future cinephiles will highlight is its highly specific tech wizardry, so on-point and thoughtful in its depiction, with enough detail paid for it to be somewhat, remotely realistic, instead of the typical delusional representation of technology seen in Hollywood. The sophistication of the hacking in Blackhat is going to be taken for granted today. That’s a shame, because it’s actually one of the most fascinating things about the film—certainly more interesting than the reigning Mann-as-auteur rhetoric.
Blackhat’s narrative is dubbed a “cyber-thriller,” fleshed out in the typical Mannian fashion of desperate fugitives, that beautiful contrast of settings between lush locales and uninteresting non-spaces, and the tense dynamic of characters with hyper-intelligent skill-sets who transform their game from confidential, FBI-sanctioned cunning strategy into anarchic bloodbaths. It’s a story fueled by such an intense desire of the lead characters from both American and Chinese governments to figure out the overelaborate con of the anonymous villain, that any natural chemistry to emerge between them—namely, between Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), the furloughed American hacker reluctantly brought out of prison to help, and Lien Chen (Wei Tang), the Chinese network engineer on the task force— is story enough to operate as a full-fledged romance, implausibility and fleshed-out character development be damned.
Genre elements (the “one last job” trope, the too-smart-for-everyone hacker, the spy traipsing through random exotic countries) aren’t so much on display here as they’re just givens. This is a story about IT security, after all, and nothing is more exotic than the location of criminal servers that need to be intentionally buried in the most remote areas of countries where no one would expect them to live. The idea that hackers might go after diligently firewalled systems in the heart of two superpower countries (a nuclear reactor in China and the American stock exchange) is a bit of a stretch, but supposed to indicate the sheer intelligence and audacity of villainy at hand here. The same goes for the actual scheme, as it appears to be unmotivated by politics or money. The American and Chinese specialist co-team scratch their heads trying to figure out why someone might blow up a reactor or fool around with the prices of soybean futures. Naturally, Hathaway’s criminal-at-heart brain figures out the larger picture, not unlike Will Graham’s unique psychology, which lets him alone understand Hannibal Lecktor’s motives inManhunter. Mann is not oblivious to these connections: a beautiful self-reflexive scene in which Hathaway thinks out loud about the case and eventually, passionately curses the “son of a bitch” is a no-brainer homage to Mann’s earlier film.
Other critics have pointed out the miscasting—of everyone except Viola Davis, who has an entertaining no-bullshit countenance as an FBI agent forced to babysit the unpredictable Hathaway—but it’s interesting to see how Hemsworth fares here, given that the brutish Hathaway is supposed to be both physically skilled in violence as well as one of the smartest hackers in the world. The film doesn’t play much with that character binary (indeed, one ofBlackhat’s most visible shortcomings is the lack of character development) and lazy writing explains perfunctorily the virtues of muscle-building in prison. But given that Hemsworth has the physical characteristics and the smart-aleck arrogance to pull off the role, he’s mostly fine. The clunkiness of the script is to blame for many of these problems in establishing the most fundamental dynamics of the narrative, like why or how Lien would be attracted to him. The same applies to her hacker specialist brother Dawai (Leehom Wang) helming the team, who brought her on, not expecting Lien to fall in love with his best friend from college Hathaway. These subplots are largely uninteresting and uninspired, weakening the emotional substance of a film that is supposed to run on a steady stream of endorphins.
But the beauty. Oh, the Mannian beauty. Blackhat is imbued with the kind of maximalist confidence we’ve come to expect from the auteur, and it’s used best in the opening scenes of the initial reactor explosion. That hackneyed idea of visually deconstructing the physical materials of technology—going through wires, speeding up around and through routers and servers and computers and code, getting to the microscopic levels of these technological objects that nobody thinks about anymore—is done justice with Blackhat’s imagery (a good comparison is David Fincher’s similar use of digital spatial movement). These images—which surface elsewhere, for your delight or horror, depending on your tolerance for such gimmicks—are the closest we’ve come in the history of cinema of showing such ubiquitous technology in a way that makes it tangible and spectacular.
Blackhat works best when it’s suggesting visual connections between people and things, cities and tech. The brutalist buildings and gates and benches in the film’s many cityscapes start to resemble those blinking data servers and wires. And what about the hacker ideology? What about the fact that tech intelligence is heavily tied to loyalty (thus Dawai’s decision to bring on his best friend and sister, two people whom he can trust)? This is not a made-up ethos. Coders and hackers are people too. These are interesting ideas the film doesn’t exactly explore, but it becomes shorthand for a mode of thinking. Late in the film, when Hathaway and Lien are using low-tech materials to make their desperate, last-juncture showdown, one is reminded of the like-minded disposition that drives many computer tinkerers, who grew up building computers and refining their DIY mentality. Tech nerds familiar with this kind of mindset will likely appreciate this kind of specificity in Blackhat. This is a film motivated by sociology, not narrative, one driven by the spirit of cyber-culture instead of the functional cogs of storytelling. Take it or leave it.