“Blackhat” Review: A Frustratingly Dull Atlas of the Information Superhighway
A malicious hacker perpetrates two acts of cyber terrorism at differing points on the globe; a nuclear reactor meltdown in China and an artificial manipulation of soy futures in the U.S. A joint task force is created between the FBI and Chinese intelligence, and quickly discover that the code being utilized by this techno fiend was created by an incarcerated hacker named Nicolas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth). Hathaway is granted the opportunity to gain his freedom if he is able to assist the task force in identifying and apprehending this new anonymous villain before his next scheme is carried out.
Michael Mann is among the kings of cops-and-robbers cinema. But what happens when the cops are the robbers, the actual robbers are barely ever seen and the robbery takes place entirely within the nebulous minutia of cyberspace? Blackhat is a major miscalculation of self-indulgence. …it is a movie that appears to have been crafted by a die-hard fan of the director who understands the look of Mann, but not the soul of Mann.That’s not to say Mann is pretentious or showing disregard for his audience, but instead he delves too deeply into one of the signatures of his overall catalog. Michael Mann loves details; he is fascinated with making every aspect of a criminal enterprise or law enforcement infrastructure as tactile to the viewer as the characters that reside within them.
While in the past this has resulted in a blue collar accessibility–the safecrackers of Thief and the armed robbers of Heat – Blackhat spends entirely too much time explaining the extreme fine points of hacking. When it’s not creating a visual road map of the internet itself, it’s a techno linguistics seminar on the proper use of acronyms. Oh yeah, brace yourself for that white-knuckle excitement! These fine points, even at their most deconstructed, are still out of arms reach of even a tech-savvy audience. Mann thereby succeeds in creating an incredibly accurate, but frustratingly dull atlas of the information superhighway.
The aggravating element here is the clear protagonist/antagonist structure of Blackhat. Michael Mann’s best cinematic crime stories are told either from the perspective of the criminals entirely (as with Thief) or from the dual perspectives of the police and the criminals who are on a collision course with one another (a la Heat and Manhunter). Blackhat is told almost entirely from the perspective of the whitehats, with a scant few minutes of screen time assigned to the villain at all. And while our principal baddie is as shoddily constructed as Windows Vista, in fact none of the characters, even the white-hatted leads are lent any definition whatsoever. This is again due to Mann’s schematic preoccupation with technology; spending all day on the “what” and a few haphazard minutes on the “who.”
Mann expends so much energy on his fixation with the nuts and bolts of cyberspace that when it comes otherwise basic filmmaking concepts, he falls asleep at the wheel. At one point, the words “stock footage” are plastered across a shot of the Chinese nuclear plant. Some have tried to reason this error away, but, unfortunately, no explanation holds water given the context of the scene.
Aesthetically, there is no mistaking the architect of the film. The streets are wet and gritty, scenes are blue-lit, and close-ups create odd angles with plenty of empty space. The action sequences are frenetic and engagingly tactical, even if far too few to justify the film’s placement in the action genre. But where are the memorable characters? Hathaway’s backstory is of so little consequence to Mann that he actually fades out the dialogue as Hemsworth begins to spin a revealing yarn about his past to his new girlfriend: the barely intelligible Wei Tang. Viola Davis’ FBI agent has one completely throw-away line about her husband dying in 9/11, representing the sum total of her character’s…well…character. And try not to laugh with the full scope of the villain’s plan is finally laid bare; only inches less underwhelming as Quantum of Solace‘s Dominic Greene’s plot to raise the price of water in Ecuador.
At first glance, Blackhat could be mistaken for the most Michael Mann-y of Michael Mann films, but once you look past the familiar veneer, it is a movie that appears to have been crafted by a die-hard fan of the director who understands the look of Mann, but not the soul of Mann. Blackhat is monumentally disappointing, especially to those who are, much like this writer, enormous advocates for this veteran filmmaker. Hopefully, we needn’t wait another six years to see Mann’s next effort.
How It Stacks Up
Both films involve young hackers who play by their own rules being utilized to track down sinister villains.
While Blackhat seems far more competent in its exploration of the infinitesimal details of the technology of its era, Hackers remains the more entertaining film of the two…painful as that is to admit.