Monday, 9 March 2015

Blackhat - Dir. Michael Mann

The Internet is a wonderful thing: it allows anyone access to a near infinite source of information and range of services from almost everywhere in the world; but as with all good things, it also provides criminals with a new avenue of illicit opportunities. Michael Mann has often focussed on the various players of the criminal game in his films, from the bank robbers of Heat and Public Enemies to the hitman of Collateral, so it’s perhaps not unexpected to see him tackle the world of cyber crime. With Blackhat he’s recognised that the Internet has changed the way the world operates but also how the fundamentals will never change.

The film begins with an attack on a Chinese nuclear plant but there are no soldiers and no guns, just the shattering cooling pumps and the subsequent explosion; in fact the biggest physical input for the attack was the tapping of a few keys as the titular Blackhat (aka the bad guy) uploaded a RAT (Remote Access Tool) to grant himself access. Mann has all sorts of fun with juxtaposing the difference in scale of action and reaction. We start in space, looking down at the vast glowing earth below. Gradually we move closer, like a satellite zooming in on its target; into the nuclear plant and into the computer terminals as the hack is implemented, swooping and gliding across the chipboards and processors as if it were a bustling cityscape. Having gone down to this near microscopic level, Mann then pulls back to show the destruction that the tapping of a few keys can cause.
After another cyber-attack (on a Chicago trade exchange, which causes soy futures to rise), the US and the Chinese set up a joint taskforce to take down the hacker before he strikes again. However, the man they really need is convicted hacker Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) who was the original designer of the RAT. After striking a deal that will see his release in return for apprehending the Blackhat, Hathaway joins the taskforce on a chase that will take him to LA, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Jakarta.

Mann has suitably expanded his playground to reflect the global story: the world is the city and countries are the new districts; the co-operation between the Chinese and American governments is the pairing of two conflicting cops who must put aside their differences to catch a bad guy. Sadly this is not Rush Hour and so, somewhat inevitably, the uneasy alliance comes to an end when Hathaway illegally makes use of secret NSA software. The NSA panic, assuming that the software will now have been seen by the Chinese, and call for Hathaway’s re-arrest. The Chinese don’t want to antagonise the Americans and so insist their officers co-operate. The hacker is still at large, but Hathaway’s indiscretion is deemed to be the greater threat. A brief mention of 9/11 makes a point here, but it also succinctly expresses a character’s motivation better than any longer speech would’ve done.
Mann’s early adoption to digital technology pays dividends throughout: the neon lights of the cities shimmer in a similar way to those in Skyfall, but his loose direction replaces the artificiality of Bond with a more intimate and naturalistic style. This style also compliments the infrequent but compelling action sequences, although Mann (and screenwriter Morgan Davis Fohl) carefully position the sequences around the characters and story to further increase their impact; Kassar (Ritchie Coster) is held at arm’s length until his full introduction at the docks whilst a violent interaction is set up early on enough that its completion is still surprising.

Chris Hemsworth is still best known for his role as Thor in the Marvel films but he’s also taking on more challenging roles in the likes of Rush and the upcoming In The Heart of The Sea. His casting as a cyber hacker may seem odd but it’s a conscious move to go against the stereotypical idea of a hacker. Hathaway makes for an intriguing character, sitting somewhere between good and bad; he’s a criminal but you side with him as he looks to take the opportunity to start a new life. Initially his prospects for the future aren’t great; even if he’s released, his past will restrict his opportunities. Then he finds something worth fighting for in his relationship with Lien (Tang Wei); for all of the machismo on display in Blackhat, it’s a story driven by love. Hemsworth’s casting is not just a stunt though as the role of Hathaway demands a physically strong actor. For all of the anonymity that operating in a virtual world provides, there is one fool proof way to defeat a hacker; to kill them. At the end of the day, that’s what will separate the winners from the losers.
We may never know why Blackhat was unceremoniously dumped in US cinemas during the less profitable January period (its domestic failure resulted in Universal cutting back on the film’s distribution in foreign territories), but it feels apt that a film about an invisible world of cyber crime happening all around us would be released under the radar amongst all of the white noise of the awards season. Whereas some of the recent Oscar nominated films will be forgotten in years to come, Blackhat will hopefully stand the test of time.

Blackhat was released in UK cinemas on 20th February 2015 and is due for release on Blu Ray/DVD on 22nd June 2015.

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