Hollywood has become adroit at making the everyday feel spectacular and entertaining. 2014's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was the most fun I've had watching humans and apes repair a dam, while Interstellar somehow kept us rapt through history's longest long-distance flight. But there's one task we humans do every day that even the best directors struggle to film without sending the audience into a trance: computing.
Last month I had a chance to see an early screening of Blackhat, the upcoming Michael Mann thriller about a hacker released from prison under a bold promise: find the cyber criminal fomenting global chaos and earn your freedom. The good guy hacker played by Chris Hemsworth, also known as Thor, dwarfs every laptop in the movie; when writing code, his fingers don't tap, they pile drive.
Hemsworth's casting, goofy as it looks, charmingly plays against computer nerd stereotypes. His meaty frame can hardly be blamed for the tediousness of watching him or anyone else in the film do glorified office work.
According to a report from 2013, the average American spends five hours a day looking at a computer, tablet, or phone and that number is trending upwards. That may explain in small part why it's so tedious to spend another minute watching someone else do the same. But I suspect a handful of other reasons compound to inspire our disinterest in gazing at impossibly beautiful people typing on all-too-mundane hardware.
Hemsworth's casting plays against computer nerd stereotypes
Hardware is designed to be operated and enjoyed by a party of one. Our daily experience on the internet requires a bit of imagination, like reading a book, where the two-dimensional representation of the world on our screen becomes a serviceable stand-on for the real world. Which is to say while I'm not working at the office today, programs like Gmail and Slack and Twitter and YouTube make it feel like I kind of, sort of am. The magic mostly happens in my head — not a place you can film.
And so film has struggled to capture that sensation of connectivity. Not for lack of trying. Some films take the gutsy move of making the imaginary world inside our computers real, creating a tangible space for the characters to stroll about. The style fits most naturally in films about virtual reality, like The Lawnmower Man. The Matrix had its own memorable take on this, too.
Blackhat uses the more traditional method for signifying the importance of computing: frenetic editing, ultra close-ups, and a hard drive full of computer animation. In the early minutes of the film, an unknown hacker launches an attack on a Chinese nuclear power plant. A keystroke sends the camera through the keyboard's casing, through a jumble of wires, across the motherboard, into the CPU, and over miniature mountains of silicon — at least, I think that's what I saw. It's an action sequence, played out in nano scale on familiar hardware that up close looks alien. The effect is entrancing at first, but much less so the second time.
The third time a hacker sits at a computer, the film gives up on the charade, and goes with the de facto shot of men and women brooding at their desk, intercut with close-ups of pixelated monitors. By the second act, most of the computers have been exchanged for guns, so Chris Hemsworth and his crew can start kicking ass in the real world with their perfectly fitted clothes and groomed hair fluttering in the wind. It was always curious for Mann, whose digital photography skillfully captures the beauty of ordinary cosmopolitan office complexes and downtown clubs, to make a movie about computers. The best "hacking" scene in the film involves some creative use of a stolen vehicle and disguise — no keyboards required.
There are two rules taught on the first day of every film program: "show, don't tell" and "people like watching people." Blackhat never manages to pat its head and rub its belly at the same time. We're either blasting through the cavernous interior of the computer or watching Thor flex, grimace, and shoot. But it's not the first film to have this problem. There's simply no established way to show what's happening in the real world, on the monitor, and that intangible space between them.
I mentioned Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a film set in a world hungry for electricity. Restoring the dam is visceral and practical, a task with visible results. Once the power returns to the huddle of survivors, a grizzled Gary Oldman turns on his tablet to look at photos of his lost family. It's an emotional moment spent looking at a screen; I couldn't wait for it to end.