As someone who writes about cybersecurity, I often have a problem with watching movies about hacking and hackers. Here’s the typical scenario. A computer containing vital information needs to be hacked into. The silly owner seems to have blocked access to it by using a password. Enter the typical nerdy looking hacker. Those needing the information on the computer command the hacker to break into the computer quickly because time is always of the essence in these films. The sweaty, nervous hacker then gets to work hammering randomly on the keyboard, apparently using the ‘monkey and typewriter’ technique. In less than 30 seconds, (because producers can’t spend a lot of money on watching a guy work for days trying to hack into a computer), the hacker utters those dramatic words, “I’m in.” He is then unceremoniously swept aside and the movie continues without him.
The other problem with hacking-based movies, or with any movie trying to show that it is a showcase for the leading edge of technology, is that they are so quickly outdated. Some movies have a good enough plot or are set so far into the science fiction future that they can survive the wrath of time. These are movies like War Games, The Net, Minority Report, or Matrix. Unfortunately, most hacking movies are so soon outdated that they often appear laughable.
The most recent movie about hackers, appropriately entitled, Hacker (a.k.a., Anonymous), does a pretty good job showing the development of a young hacker. It shows how someone interested in computers may be drawn into the shadowy hacking world for financial or other reasons. It kind of downplays the time needed to learn code and deploy malware, but we can ignore that for the most part.
The criminal organization that the main character gets involved with in the film somewhat misrepresents how they exist in the real world. Yes, there are deep web, hacker-based, criminal groups, but they are extremely paranoid and thinly organized. The reason for this is that anonymity is absolutely mandatory in the deep web. This is because you are never sure who you are truly dealing with. The larger the organization, the greater the chance that a federal agent could become part of your group. The organization shown in the film seems quite large for the deep web, but I suppose that can be overlooked to allow the plot to develop.
As the movie progresses, the main character, Alex, played quite well by Callan McAuliffe, meets with unusual luck in escaping detection and in meeting the right people to help him advance his standing in the organization. Of course, without coincidence and luck, we’d have few movie plots, so you can’t criticize the film for that. For me, the problem comes with his meeting with the female lead, Kira, played by Lorraine Nicholson. She has the appropriate hacking knowledge but she also has questionable connections that do not seem to make Alex as concerned as he should be. You could make the argument that love is blind except for the fact that Alex, inexplicably, has a complete lack of romantic interest in the enigmatic Kira. This relationship really needed to be developed more to understand the development of the plot, but, perhaps, the writers weren’t as knowledgeable about romantic relationships as they are about cyber topics.
Without going into detail and ruining the movie for those who want to see it, Alex and his gang of three become progressively more involved in the cyber underground. Their attacks bridge the hacking spectrum from the financial to the hacktivist. Most of these are quite consistent with hacking architecture and strategy, even if they may seem surprising to those not well acquainted with the tools used in the cyber underworld. Eventually, of course, as in all movies, things don’t go quite as planned.
The end of the movie is a bit confusing as scenes seem to jump from one to another rather quickly and without adequate explanation. I found the ending to have a number of logical problems, but I’ll leave the viewer to determine for themselves whether it is acceptable. I would rate the movie a 6 out of 10, which means that it has some entertainment value.
The same cannot be said about the film, Algorithm. This is a ‘B’ movie with ‘C’ acting. It’s kind of like watching a high school drama production. To its credit, it probably has the most accurate information about hacking of any film in this genre. It could even serve as a hacking primer. Unfortunately, for the average viewer, it simply has too much information and it would not surprise me if many fell asleep before the plot actually kicks in. Sadly, others will fall asleep when the plot kicks in. It, in fact, plunges the viewer into the land of the nonsensical. Okay, I admit that the NSA and DHS might be involved in some shady dealings, but the shady dealings shown here are a bit over the top, even for the most paranoid among us.
Then there’s the editing. In one scene, the government agents enter an apartment building on a dark, foggy, rainy day, only to find that the sun is shining brightly in the apartment they enter seconds later. The actors walk in buildings with no people. Hacking sequences also become more bizarre and unbelievable as the movie goes on. I’m still not sure about the tin foil room that the main character builds.
The acting is abysmal. People speak their memorized lines in robotic fashion and virtually no emotional connections seem to exist between any of them. The ending is somewhat predictable though it tries not to be. Maybe it will surprise some viewers, who knows?
In short, only watch this film if you want to learn a few hacking angles. Treat it as an instructional video, because, as a film, it is a waste of time. I’d rate it a 3.
The truth is that if you really want to learn something about the hacking world, it’s better to just watch a documentary. Two that I recommend are Zero Days, and Deep Web. Zero Days documents the development of the complex Stuxnet Malware which was initially unleashed to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. More importantly, it revealed the existence of an even more deadly package named, Nitro Zeus.
Deep Web gives you a view into, not surprisingly, the deep web and, specifically, how Ross Ulbricht organized the deep web market site known as Silk Road. My guess is that the producers of Hacker used some of this information in the making of their film. Both documentaries are valuable viewing because they show the implications that hacking can have on the lives of everyday people.
It’s inevitable that hacking and hackers will play a part in, or be the subject of, future films. It’s a phenomenon that’s simply too much a part of modern culture to ignore. However, such movies will continue to be plagued by a short shelf life and technical inaccuracies. For the average viewer, this may not present a problem as most people are willing to believe that hackers can do the impossible. Those of us in the business of cybersecurity, however, will, for the most part, have to grit our teeth and overlook logical inconsistencies in the hope that a strong plot will create an entertaining, or at least acceptable, movie experience.