Hacking is a popular subject to depict on the silver screen. Computers are ubiquitous in our society and seemingly impossible to escape. It’s mankind’s nature to fear the mysterious and unknown - for many, hacking computer code represents that unknown. Computer code is the unseen thread that connects each of our devices and online identities. Cybercriminals who can manipulate these programs at will are presented as a compelling fictional and seemingly real threat. Sometimes that’s flipped around and the hacker is presented as the protagonist. Neo from The Matrix is a notable example. He’s the “regular Joe” with computer skills, and his virtual curiosity thrusts him into the middle of a plot to free humanity from real subjugation.
Hacking is used as a plot device in many other types of media as well. Dan Brown focused on the topic of data security and hacking to great effect in his novel, “Digital Fortress.” On the film side of things, we’ve seen a bevy over the past thirty years. 1983’s WarGames, 1995’s Hackers, or even 2015’s Blackhat. Hackers, computer geniuses, and programmers are often depicted as singularly male and probably white and nerdy. There are a few notable exceptions to that rule - like Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Hollywood hacking is a notable trope. While most of us possess basic computer skills, those skills do not include any techno wizardry. We can post Facebook updates and play solitaire, but hacking mainframes is beyond us. The mysteries of coding remain, well, a mystery. People are easily impressed by things they don’t understand. That’s why film-ified Hollywood hacking works. Unless you’ve been immersed in that community, you probably won’t visually know the difference. They can throw huge blocks of code up on the screen and show us a furiously typing hacker fighting the clock to save humanity. Someone’s launching nukes? Don’t worry - our protagonist knows exactly how to manipulate any and all Department of Defense systems and it will only take seconds. Realistic? I think not.
Perhaps the reason hackers are so interesting is because of real-world data breaches. There are plenty of examples: Wikileaks, Sony, and even Guccifer’s hacking exploits. Hacks and data breaches happen often enough to notable companies that they quickly gain public attention. The digital age has given birth to a new wave of cyber criminals and hackers.
Most smaller data breaches involve things like email addresses and personally identifiable information. There’s also the occasional big “heist” resulting in millions of dollars of damage to government entities, private companies, and individuals. The remake of The Italian Job featured quite a bit of hacking, even having Seth Green portray the supposed “inventor of Napster.” He spends most of his time hacking traffic lights - so no industrial espionage here. Considering that 54.9% of all data breaches incidents occur in the business sector, remarkably few are depicted on the screen. Admittedly, a film about hacking Sony’s email accounts could make for boring entertainment. Releasing customer information into the wild is still sinister, but less fun to depict on film than preventing nuclear war.
Hacking is often only used as a plot point or skill rather than the main focus of the film - though there are several notable exceptions, like those listed above. Because most viewers won’t know the difference, filmmakers can get away with exaggerated “Hollywood hacking.” Technology is an unknown factor for many of us. We all use it every day of our lives, but rarely do any of us understand the intricate programming involved. Because of this mysterious element, the usage of hacking can be compelling for filmgoing audiences. Audiences enjoy watching films that raise the stakes and question the world around them.