The cyber thriller was an espionage film pastiche in the 1990s that took the new and expanding world of computing and attempted to apply it to popular spy tropes from decades past. It was a reasonably successful marketing ploy at the time, as most of the films' audience were still relative novices in the realm of popular computing and internet usage, and the introduction of hacking into popular culture seemed like a sexy addition to film vocabulary. Fast forward fifteen years, however, and we live in a world where cyber-terrorism exists as a reality, and what does it amount to? Harassing female video gamers and infiltrating the databases of a major film studio. While these are definitely problems in their own right, they are hardly the mainstays of yester-decades spy flicks. That’s why Blackhat feels like such an anachronism, as it functions primarily as a callback to those cyber-espionage films but does little to modernize or even attempt self-parody.
Our main character is Chris Hemsworth (and let’s not worry about character names, because I don’t think anyone really cares), an imprisoned master hacker who has been placed on furlough in order to track down another hacker responsible for manipulating the stock market and causing a nuclear meltdown in Beijing. And beyond that, the film really fails at making its plot points connect in any way meaningful to its audience. Jargon is spewed from the mouths of government agents with little reductionism for the layman, but that doesn’t even seem to matter as hacking seems to function as a magical do-all MacGuffin in the eyes of the plot anyway. This is generally a staple of the cyber-espionage genre, but in an age when we all have at least some knowledge of how networks function, the leaps in logic the film makes would be silly if it didn’t take itself so damn seriously.
And that lack of levity makes Blackhat a real bore of a film. Not only are all the characters stock, but they are uniformly stoic as well, meaning no one has any depth or personality to make them relatable to the average viewer. The closest the film comes is a romance between Hemsworth and English language newcomer Tang Wei, but it seemingly comes out of nowhere and lacks any sort of realistic chemistry. I’m fairly certain this isn’t the fault of the actors, but of the material and direction with which they had to work, as their stilted performances are only indicative of the film’s greater problems.
The film only really springs to life during its act transition action scenes, which arrive like clockwork and only served to arouse me from my near catatonia. These scenes are the only ones well directed, with gun and knife play expertly captured with a handheld camera, but they are hardly worth it provided the context in which they are presented. They even come across as slightly ridiculous, as Hemsworth’s supposed hacker character engages in action-movie antics right alongside the government agents and bad guys, which makes sense for the types of roles Hemsworth usually plays but not the character he is playing in this instance.
At the end of the day, Blackhat is exactly what it appears to be: a January film release that didn’t meet the expectations of its producing studio, pushed out in hopes of making a few dollars in cinema’s artistic dead zone. It’s a dull, pointless affair that would have been more at home two decades ago, yet probably wouldn’t have been well-received then either. Don’t even bother.