Mark Reviews Movies

Blackhat

BLACKHAT

2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Michael Mann

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Tang Wei, Wang Leehom, Holt McCallany, John Ortiz, Ritchie Coster, Yorick van Wageningen, William Mapother

MPAA Rating: R (for violence and some language)

Running Time: 2:15

Release Date: 1/16/15


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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 15, 2015

Here is a thriller in which technology serves as both the hero and the villain. Blackhat does possess a human hero and a human villain, but both are primarily defined by their mastery of technology. We don't even get to see the villain until near the end of the film. Up until that point, he exists only as a person's back, as the sound of fingers pounding away on a keyboard, or as an index finger that hovers over the "Enter" key before coming down with a definitive click.

The hero, of course, gets to do much more, such as showing off his "low-tech" methods, which include close-quarters combat and shooting. Even so, the point remains: The star of the movie is technology. Before any of the human characters arrive, it's the first player we meet, and it gets an effective, almost abstract introduction.

At a nuclear power plant somewhere in China, the camera moves through a digital display and traverses the lengthy cables behind the monitor. As it goes, the camera basically shrinks down to the size of a computer chip and then further diminishes in dimension until it's looking at the chip's internal parts, which form a complex zig-zag of lines. This pattern continues as the camera moves down each level, and it seems that the structure will never endójust an infinity of repeating, metallic architecture in miniature. It does end with a tiny collection of dots. A few suddenly burst into white light, and the light spreads.

Eventually, it moves back to where it began, and the virtual contagion leads to a failure in the plant's cooling system. There's an explosion. Eight people are killed, and dozens are wounded.

There is something hypnotic about that opening sequence, so when we meet the people who will meticulously uncover the mystery behind the disaster, they have a lot of catching up to do. What's strange is that director Michael Mann and screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl don't treat them as human beings. They are almost an extension of the movie's portrayal of technology, which exists as a cold and uncaring entity that is simultaneously an adversary and a necessary tool for the heroes' success.

To say that the characters here are underdeveloped is either an understatement or not giving Mann enough credit for what he trying to do with them. These characters have simple motives. Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), the primary hero, is a hacker serving 15 years in prison, and the FBI comes to him with a deal that he negotiates to something more favorable for him. If he helps the government catch the hacker, his sentence will be commuted.

The feds, led by Carol Barrett (Viola Davis), have teamed up with their Chinese counterparts to stop the threat. The two main people on that end are Dawai Chen (Wang Leehom) and his sister Lien (Tang Wei). The only goal for all of these characters is to identify and apprehend the person behind the hacking streak, which later causes turmoil on the stock exchange.

That's it. There is nothing else. Yes, Hathaway and Lien become romantically involved, although those scenes play out as routine. There's a sense that the movie needs to get the sex out of the way so that it can get back to the plot, or perhaps it's the characters who feel that need.

That's only if they feel anything, though. All of these characters operate almost like programming. Mann paces the extensive scenes of dialogue (which, admittedly, do a fine job explaining the whats and hows of the movie's tech angle) in such a way that there are additional beats and pregnant pauses between each exchange. It's as if the characters are processing information quickly but not quickly enough for an immediate reaction. Perhaps that connection of these characters to the way technology works is Mann's point. There's some additional evidence in the way he shoots certain landscapes (such as a skyline and a series of pillars behind which some bad guys take cover) in a way that are reminiscent of some of the shots in that opening journey through a computer chip.

What, as the question must ultimately be, is the point to this correlation? Is it a critique of how programmed we have become through the widespread use of technology? Is it a commentary on how rote the plots and characters of such thrillers are? Is there something in the way nothing is really accomplished by any of these characters until they actually implement some of those "low-tech" methods? The movie does erupt into life during its handful of action sequences. Mann and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh shoot them in an overtly handheld way, as if the operator is deliberately shaking the camera as the players run and fight and shoot. Unlike so much else of what the characters do, these events and the consequences of them are real.

Some, all, or more of these and other undercurrents might be present and intentional in Blackhat. In practice, though, the movie can't escape its routine plot and trappings therein. That the characters are little more than exposition-spewing and custom-following robots only elevates our disinterest in the material. That it is cold and unfeeling may be the point, but that doesn't change what it is.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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