Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing


You mustn’t think Hackers is a craven movie-studio attempt to cash in on the perceived popularity of la vie online. In fact, the word “Internet” comes up only once in the film’s 105 minutes, and is uttered hammily at that. No, the film makes an honest attempt to view the komputer-kid subculture as a group of actual kids who dig computers, as opposed to geeks without life or love. And as in the computer biz itself, Hackers is remarkably generous about who can jack in.

Included in Hackers’ fin-de-siècle family is Phantom Phreak (real name Ramón, played by Renoly Santiago), a Latino dude with hair like Molly Johnson who befriends the new kid in town, Dade Murphy (Jonnny Lee Miller). You don’t need a rap sheet as long as your arm to be a somebody in the hacker circuit, and Dade’s shutdown of 1,507 computers in a single day (at age 11!) means his reputation precedes him as he settles into a surprisingly shipshape New York high school. He’s a godlike figure, one on an inevitable course toward union with the only grrrl hacker around, Kate Libby (Angelina Jolie).

Funny thing is, Phantom Phreak seems about as attached to heterosexuality as his handle is to the letter F. As usual, he’s not explicitly queer, but he’s certainly not explicitly straight. (This is 1995, and kids today are much less hung up about that gender shit.) All that matters is ability, and the rainbow cast has that in abundance. Even the lads with genuinely geeky tendencies have their day.

Hackers’ plot-- about an evil hacker with a lot of corporate toys to play with who attempts to frame our hero and his posse for an act of ecological destruction-- strains credulity as much as the hopelessly inaccurate images displayed on various computer screens. Director Iain Softley is more interested in playing with surfaces and emphasizing the fluidity of identity and character in the online realm.

The way Phantom Phreak tags along with-- and nurtures-- Dade and Kate conjures memories of doting Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause. Razor and Blade, two Japanese phone phreaks-cum-pirate-TV operators, cross-dress via smart men’s clothes and more make-up than a geisha but suffer no hit to their street cred at all. There’s a standing joke about wearing a dress, and indeed, the souped-up paramilitary costumes are another exemplar of the surfacing of fetish gear in pop culture. Watch Kate’s dream sequence for the most heterosexually queer 60 seconds of the year. And look closely at Jonnny Lee Miller as he stares at his laptop; it’s onto his face that Softley reflects some implausible but beautiful fractal-like graphics. Miller’s moles and scratches and five-o’clock shadow and gloriously mismatched hair and eyebrow colours are a living canvas of their own.

True to Hollywood form, Phantom Phreak doesn’t get to kiss Dade on the lips, as some of us might like; indeed, only Dade and Kate get to get it on, in a closing-credits fuck that’s both zipless and subaqueous. The respectful, even-handed treatment of a wide-open culture that old farts will never understand is what gives Hackers its currency. Here’s hoping for a sequel, in which Ramón’s sex life becomes rather less phantom and rather more phreaky.

Now what you really need to do is read my analysis of the graphic design of Hackers.

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