On its surface, Netflix’s new original movie iBoy sounds like a bad idea. But on closer inspection, it’s also a bad idea that’s been poorly executed. The movie, based on a YA novel by Kevin Brooks, is about a high schooler named Tom (Bill Milner) who’s left with bits of his cellphone embedded in his brain after a violent attack. (There’s no real explanation; it just gets shoved in there.) As freak accident would have it, getting a cellphone lodged in his skull bestows Tom with a set of special powers. It’s a classic superhero story: former nerd is equipped with superhuman abilities and the sudden urge to fight crime. Only this time, instead of gut-punching the bad guys, iBoy hacks their smartphones.
As is the case with many superhero stories, Tom’s powers don’t make much sense. He is, generally speaking, a hacker, but iBoy’s definition of what that means is ridiculously broad. Tom can break into anyone’s cellphone from a distance, using only his brain. He can lock doors, rev a car engine, change the radio station, and explode TVs. It’s like Matilda — if Matilda were a horny teenager with a crush and a revenge fantasy.
The movie’s representation of what Tom’s new cranial wiring does to him looks like every tech cliché implemented in a single 90-minute movie. Glowing blue orbs envelope every phone. A glitchy YouTube screen dangles in front of Tom’s face at random. Rogue texts and lines of code hang in the air like tinsel. When Tom hacks a device, a loading bar labeled “Hacking…” appears on the screen. It’s a big, bright explanation of what’s happening for anyone who hasn’t figured it out already.
The targets of Tom’s vigilante justice are the men responsible for his injury — a group of gang members who also attacked his crush, Lucy (Game Of Thrones’ Maisie Williams). The gang members are portrayed as violent, unpleasant people who deserve whatever’s coming for them, and also as a group of dumb teenagers who got themselves caught up in a bad crowd. This is where Tom’s newfound sense of justice starts to feel muddled. Tom isn’t hacking to find clues, he’s hacking to humiliate. One night, Tom hacks the webcams of each gang member just to sit on his bed and watch them. When one of them begins to masturbate, Tom records the session and later projects it onto a screen during a school assembly. The only appropriate response here is wondering why a juvenile invasion of privacy is the go-to fight tactic of our 21st century hero — and how he ended up as the villain of a Black Mirror episode.
Because Tom ends up being an ultimately unlikable character, it’s up to Lucy to take on a victim-to-hero role as Tom crumbles under the responsibility that comes with his powers. Williams is the only vaguely enjoyable thing about iBoy, but her role is minor; she’s an object for Tom to save, even after she reminds him repeatedly that she doesn’t want to be saved.
Because despite iBoy’s assertions that it’s selling a futuristic kind of good vs. evil, it’s actually a pretty traditional yarn about a damsel in distress. The hero is a hackerman, but the villain is just a drug kingpin who’s interested in getting very rich. There’s potential here for a story about a teenager dealing with the moral questions of unlimited spy powers, but iBoy instead charts its course toward kidnapping, a gun fight, and redemption.
Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised that a movie called iBoy is a little outdated. But it isn’t just the film’s understanding of technology that seems off; iBoy’s gender dynamics and its entire story structure both feel pulled from the ‘90s. At the same time, iBoy has little nostalgia for movies of that time, like Hackers and The Net, that made its existence possible. And without any camp or humor to go with its self-serious hacks, iBoy feels like it’s trying to understand something the rest of us figured out years ago.