Zero Cool. Crash Override. Acid Burn. Cereal Killer. Those are names that make information security professionals – sometimes also dubbed hackers by media and others – both cringe and smile. They’re the reason why quite a number of us are in the field we’re working in today. Because, let’s be honest, 1995’s Hackers is an amazing movie.
This year marks the 20th anniversary a of director and writer Iain Softley’s masterpiece Hackers. But its story is a weird one. The movie manages to be awesome and awful at the same time, often for the very same reasons. But what can’t be denied is that its influence is present to this day.
Hackers tells the story of Dade Murphy (played by Jonny Lee Miller) who, using the alias Zero Cool, crashed 1507 computers in one day. He was sentenced by court to not use a computer until his 18th birthday. On that day, he not only moves to New York City, but also hooks his computer up to the Internet and hacks a TV station as nothing good was on. Calling himself Crash Override now, he meets a hacker named Acid Burn (Angelina Jolie) online. At school, he meets a young man calling himself Phantom Phreak (Renoly Santiago) who specializes in Phreaking, the manipulation of phones. He befriends a group of Hackers who will get into trouble when one of their own hacks a Gibson supercomputer, belonging to oil company Ellingson Mineral.
Now they are on the run from the FBI and their only way to exonerate themselves and prove that they’re innocent is to uncover a plot plotted by Ellingson Mineral’s Computer Security Officer – a man calling himself The Plague.
A lot of things can be said against the movie. The acting is far from the best, the story is unbelievable at best and completely implausible at worst and whenever you see people working on a screen in the movies, it’s outright absurd.
Then there’s the fact that our merry band of hackers goes everywhere on inline skates. Everywhere. Meanwhile, the bad guy uses a skateboard.
It’s a terribly dated movie and it paints a look of hacker culture exactly as it never was. Cyberpunk chique never made its way into it and to this day, there’s not a single company that has a large wall width display of a graphical interface of its company Kernel, let alone a keyboard as ridiculous as the one seen at Ellingson Mineral. In fact, it’s hard to find something like a company Kernel.
So how is it then that people who had no idea about computers made one of the best hacker movies of all time? The awesomeness of this movie lies in everything else.
Hackers was a gateway drug for many of us people in the information security industry. We’re now grown adults with lives, families and pets. But twenty years ago, in 1995, when Hackers came out, we were young.
Most of us were fond of computers even back then. We might have been working on Windows 95 already. We might have been wondering what technological wonders the Pentium MMX would bring and we were often ridiculed for our ability to spend nights and days in front of a screen, just to see if we could maybe manipulate the savestates of Command & Conquer – the very first one – to have more Tiberium and thus gain an edge in the game.
Hackers is the movie that taught us that we can be different. We don’t have to be sports fans to be cool. There was Zero Cool and there was Cereal Killer and there was Acid Burn. They were undeniably very cool. They looked trendy, they were super smart and every machine on this planet was at their feet.
Think back to the 90s for a second. Pagers were cool. Cereal Killer had a pager. Inline skates were cool. Everyone went everywhere on inline skates. Techno music wasn’t quite as popular then as it ended up being not a year later and the Hackers had it. There were even concerts at a club where two hackers with their own TV show – Razor and Blade – lived backstage. Hell, there were hacker clubs! Plural! And they were cool. They were people who understood why someone would like to spend ten hours staring into a text file, tinkering around with values and ultimately doing something people shouldn’t be doing by design.
Not only did the movie first convey something like nerds having the ability to be super cool but it was also inspiring. Could a computer really do all this? Could our computers be hooked up to the phone? Could we break into other computers? Remember, this was 1995 and our modems still made a lot of noise.
We were inspired. Not to steal anything, because even though Zero Cool and his friends were committing what seems to be an astronomically high number of crimes over the course of the movie, they did it for the right reasons. That said, illegal remains illegal, no matter what the reasons. But it did raise a question: Could we do good with our computers while tinkering with them so that they would do things they were not intended to do?
History between us all watching Hackers as impressionable teens and 2015 shows us that tinkering is a good thing. Curiosity is a good thing. A certain amount of criminal thinking and out-of-the-box creativity is a good thing. And, after all, it is using things the way they’re not meant to be used that pays our wages.
Or, to quote the movie’s character Razor:
Remember, hacking is more than just a crime. It's a survival trait.
Hackers is the movie that showed many of us what we could be. This is why we’re looking back on this gloriously crappy movie with fondness. We put it on when there’s a rainy Sunday afternoon and we watch it with our families and loved ones who all question our sanity for the entirety of the 107 minute runtime of the film. But there’s just nothing like Zero Cool proclaiming a creed that gave us all the shivers at one point.
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