Let's get one thing out of the way before wading into the two-and-a-half hour establishing shot known as the film Blackhat: There are no definitive blackhats in Blackhat the movie.
Nor is it actually a film about blackhats, or a cool and timely real-life blackhat tale.
Bizarrely miscast, Blackhat's leading man Chris Helmsworth plays 'lone wolf' 'ordinary guy' clean-cut all-American-looking supreme master hacker Hathaway, who goes by the handle "ghostman."
This is not the Helmsworth we love as the vibrant, self-aware Thor -- though regretfully, Helmsworth's framing as Blackhat's physically unstoppable, quiet cyber-mystic makes it impossible to disconnect him from the superhero god.
Sadly, Blackhat is Helmsworth as a dead-eyed, emotionally flatlined male model who talks like he got lost on his way to the truck stop, but hacks real good.
Like with all the other one-inch-deep personas in Blackhat, heroes and villains alike, we struggle as viewers for reasons to care about him -- or anyone in this film.
Many people have pointed out that the film miscast Helmsworth based on his appearance, and they're not entirely wrong.
Most Michael Mann films have cast characters that look like they belong in their subcultures, so it's an out of place choice for both a Mann film, as well as pretty much every hacker community worldwide.
Though in one scene, Hacker Thor does wear a black hat as a disguise.
The film begins when a mysterious cyberbaddie uses his cyberpowers for cyberevil and causes a devastating cybermeltdown at a Chinese nuclear reactor.
Then, acting out another Hollywoodian cybertrope, Mr. Bad hacks American stock market soy commodities for terror money.
Thats' right: Our cyberbaddie implausibly begins his career with two attacks announcing his presence to exactly the people he wants to keep completely in the dark, guaranteeing attention and retaliation from nation-states with massive cyberwarfare programs -- China and the United States.
Being great longtime friends, China and the U.S. partner up to get Thor out of prison on furlough to save the world from this evil cybercriminal.
As the movie trudges into its first act, Thor-as-Hathaway starts out in jail for being a black hat hacker, of course, albeit a somewhat lacking one for getting caught. He makes a deal with the Feds, and bounces out.
In Hollywood's beloved, fictional "lone wolf cyberhero" style, he's the only hacker in the entire world who can save the world from this evil bad guy hacker who can get to anyone, anywhere, anytime.
The only one. Who can help us.
Ghostman is apparently our only hope because he co-authored some of the malware used by the bad guy. He wrote it in college, of course, in his wild college days of dorm-room, Thor-gone-wild, blackhat... experimentation.
At first the film makes us think the bad guy is this one Middle Eastern dude, who's good at machine guns and bombs and killing people, but it's not.
Eventually we find out it's the terrorist's boss: A British expat who looked like, but sadly wasn't, Zach Galifianakis' "Hangover" character (although we had hoped Mr. Bad would be a cameo by John McAfee).
At the end, there is a final, utterly ridiculous hand-to-hand battle between Thor and the film's Other White Guy.
But not before we endure:
- Two female characters: one Angry Black Woman and one Educated Submissive Asian Sex Piece.
- Lots of explosions, plus shootouts that threaten our already-shaky suspension of disbelief.
- Conspicuously unrelated emotional 9/11 references.
- Thor hacks the NSA to save the world.
- The NSA program Thor has to hack is distractingly called "Black Widow".
- Bash prompts!
- Enough technical accuracy to make the technical inaccuracies look worse.
- Long visual segments of flying through computers to help us do what Hollywood can't: imagine how computers work.
- More bash prompts! So real!
- A film with characters we never care about and a plot that comes across as a car that can't decide where to park.
It's weird to see Mann hit so many sour notes. In BLACKHAT, Michael Mann's Moronic Cyber Scavenger Hunt, film reviewer Ben Umstead adds,
There are three major action set pieces in the film, none memorable on their own terms. They merely act as pale imitations of scenes from Mann's Heat, or else pale imitations of scenes inspired by Mann's Heat.
These scenes are further marred by wretched digital cinematography. While Mann was an early adopter of digital cameras, Blackhat may be the new studio-backed poster child for supremely ugly digital cinema. Each action scene suffers from in-camera tech issues such as inconsistent focus, and dropped frame rates. For a film of this size, this feels frighteningly amateurish.
The film's hacking was equally disappointing: technically accurate -- mostly -- but not realistic. Unlike the realness and visceral thrill of (Swedish) "Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" Blackhat's hacking was decidedly Hollywood, consistently cartoonish, and overwhelmed by a morality play as dated as the cold war.
So why were this film's pre-release articles telling us "Hollywood finally gets internet right" and that 'hackers love it'?
The answer to that question is as stark as infosec's class divide, and clearly described in Blackhat's two very different Bay Area hacker screenings.
The first Bay Area screening was a private Hollywood A-list affair, put together by Universal Studios and a Google security team manager who also consulted for the film.
Invited to the screening attended by Michael Mann and Chris Helmsworth were 200+ of "Silicon Valley's cybersecurity elite" -- along with infosec rockstars, security journalism digerati, and their friends.
The 'infosec elite' from Google, Facebook, Dropbox, Twitter, Tesla and Yahoo were primarily management. Some of those elite notables are former black hats.
No-one had anything negative to say about the film, showing Hollywood that Silicon Valley infosec will gladly mimic Silicon Valley startup jock culture when it comes to being star-struck, seeking validation, and becoming sycophantic in the presence of fame and perceived opportunity.
The second screening was a private (but not secret) affair, in a Valley mall theater rented out on opening night by working-class hacker chapter dc408.
Google, Apple, Tesla and the same companies' security professionals were represented -- by employees, rather than management and elites -- and there was not a rockstar in sight.
There were a significant number of indie, active blackhats in the theater of 80+ hackers.
I'm pretty sure that at the A-list screening, the theater wasn't cracking jokes nonstop like a Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight -- but dc408's crowd said they knew the film was going to be bad, and came well prepared. It was a blast.
Hecklers predicted the plot, and shouted Bitcoin value jokes during the stock market crash scenes. Our faces hurt from laughing at the end of the long movie, some said they felt sick from the camerawork, and someone shouted "Thank God!" when the film ended -- to a theater of laughter.
At drinks afterward, we tried to understand why our "elite" friends liked it. We figured they had their reasons.
One hacker in my row told me he played solitaire on his phone through the entire third act.
No one came out feeling like Hollywood 'got it right' -- but no one cared enough if Hollywood got it wrong, either.
It was just another out-of-touch film about the outside view from a powerful few, trading freedom for false security, and Hollywood's fantasy of being part of technocratic advancement -- when in fact its political and tech naïveté brings it every step closer to being a primary ingredient of possible fascism.
Free of risks and appealing to Silicon Valley's elite, it was still Hollywood's film, and not ours.
Blackhat came in 10th on its opening weekend.