Six Things Writers Can Learn From Hackers (1995)

HackersI’ve always had a lot of time for Hackers – it’s one of the few #TrashyTuesdayMovies I was actually looking forward to seeing. It may be an uneven movie, but it’s one of the first major films that came out and tackled the developing paranoia about the internet that swept through the 90s, taking the fear of out of the realm of science fiction and planting it in the present day. On the list of vaguely disappointing cyberpunk movies that came out of the era , it actually nails the feel of William Gibson’s novels and short-stories far better than the genre works.

It’s also hard to think of a more iconic nineties movie than Hackers. It’s one of those terrible movies that defines a generation – if you were in your late teens or early twenties in 1995, when the film came out, then there’s pretty good odds you remember this film as the thing that killed of Johnny Lee Miller’s career after Trainspotting (along with Plunket and McClain) and launched the career of Angelina Jolie (unless you’re willing to argue that Cyborg II did that).

It’s also one of those movies that I end up watching once or twice a year, pulling it apart as I try to figure out why I like it so much.


Let’s be clear: even in 1995, the hacking scenes in Hackers were…not good. One of the dangers of grappling with technology concepts that haven’t yet filtered into the public consciousness is the necessity of educating people about the technology even as you’re telling the story.

Some writers can do this exceptionally well. Some…well, they have extended sequences where people explain shit to one-another and recite passages from newspaper articles about hackers and their dangers.

To be fair, there are points where Hackers info-dumps exceptionally well – the scene where Dade explains the purpose of the various books Cereal is carrying around, about halfway through the first act, is a really nice info-dump that serves multiple purposes within the story.

In contrast, pretty much everything involving Plague and his lover/accomplice, Margo, is terrible. Even if you take into account that Plague is an arrogant motherfucker for who it’s in character to be a condescending fucker, it just comes off as irritating every time he hammers home a point that’s necessary to comprehend the plot.


Seriously, there is no real point to Margo in this film. She’s a convenient plot device.

And yet, I know the temptation to do this. I’ve got a draft of Horn, my first novella, where it’s a buddy-cop story and the second cop is a rookie who has fey culture explained to him. It was terrible. Really, really terrible. Fucking awful.

Kinda like every scene where Margo walks around, asking Plague what’s going on.

I suspect this impulse comes from Sherlock Holmes, where people make the mistake of thinking that Watson is there to be the recipient of Holmes’ explanations, but that’s a slack interpretation of what’s going on in those stories. Watson’s got a secondary purpose: being the character you can actually like. He humanized Holmes, who would otherwise come across as an annoying asshole.

Margo doesn’t humanise Plague. And he is an annoying asshole throughout the film, despite Fischer Steven’s best attempts to turn him into an over-the-top villain.


Everything in Hackers is driven by one of the minor characters, Joey, hacking into a major computer system and messing with the plans of the evil antagonist, Plague, and his lover/accomplice who primarily exists in the film so Plague has someone to explain things too.

Plague ties our protagonist, Dade, into the conflict for various convoluted reasons, but the film is actually a little smarter than that – if it wasn’t for Dade shooting the shit with his hacker friends in the first act, Joey would never have made the hack that sets things in motion.

This is the core rule for writers: when in doubt, make sure the hero is partially responsible for putting things in motions. Even if it happens inadvertently, it ensures that they’re invested in the sequence that follows.


When you get right down to it, hacking is someone sitting in front of a computer keyboard and doing shit with code. It’s an interesting enough activity in its own right, but it makes for terrible cinema. Movies are all about characters in motion – we want to see them doing something.

Spend enough time watching 90s cinema and you’ll see multiple attempts to tackle this problem. Hackers tries it a couple of ways: big, fancy-looking computers with lots of neon and highly impractical keyboards; metaphorical images that give the sense of two character’s duelling; the occasional VR-ish sequence that’s meant to show us what it looks like “inside” the computer (blame William Gibson for this one); fancy interfaces that look nothing computer code.

Ironically, the scenes where the computer hacking are most interesting are the points where they try to gussy up the process the least. Sections where they show people working on their computers, then look at the consequences of what they’ve just done.


Hacker is full of references to its source material, from the imaginary “Gibson” computer systems through to the character of Emmanuel “Cereal Killer” Goldstein. If you were at all interested in hacking in the nineties (or, you know, just a William Gibson fan), Hackers is a non-stop stream of references to its source material that comes off as twee.

There is a line between homage and sad, and it’s usually at the point where something is so damned on-the-nose that you have to roll your eyes.


The one thing I have to give Hackers: it’s got a distinct sense of style. From the fashion choices sported by the characters in the film through to the directorial choices and soundtrack, the things that most date the film are its themes and its technology references (well, and the giant cell phones).

It’s a film that dates pretty well, all things considered, despite the fact that a lot of things are out of date. While the attempts to create something “cool” will occasionally set your teeth on edge, the various sub-plots about where the hacker protagonists interact with each other are still genuinely fun to watch.

And, like XKCD, I’ll always be a fan of the Zero Cool/Crash Override love story.


  2 comments for “Six Things Writers Can Learn From Hackers (1995)

  1. fictionmachine
    29/07/2014 at 9:50 AM

    I have a lot of time for Hackers. I wrote about it some time ago here:

    And now that you've analysed Hackers I really want to see your take on Johnny Mnemonic, 1995's other cyberpunk misfire.

    • petermball
      29/07/2014 at 10:30 AM

      It's on the short-list, which means it'll get covered sometime in the next couple of weeks.

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