Tech on Film: Blackhat (2015)

So I finally got around to watching Michael Mann's Blackhat (2015), a movie that was allegedly praised for accurately portraying computer jockeys that used their technical background to commit crimes. It's not surprising that Blackhat didn't do too well at the box office despite extremely attractive Chris Hemsworth and the respected Mann at the helm. It is surprising, however, that any guy with a tech cred would say the use of tech in the movie was accurate and laudable. It's not that the scenarios involving controlling nuclear equipment and smartphones are farfetched - so little was shown of how it was done it's hard for any serious programmer or developer to judge whether what Hemsworth and his opponent actually did was accurate.

Hey pal, if I had someone like Tang Wei on my bed I wouldn't be sitting in my workstation wondering if I should buy a Dell XPS13.

In fact, apart from using an Android device in Hong Kong to detect Bluetooth transmissions in a small area, Blackhat is as technical as the widely panned Harrison Ford film Firewall (2006). There are various nods to ssh, Linux, Windows Servers and phishing but nothing that hasn't been seen in TV shows and older movies that have attempted to accurately portray tech.


2.6.18-53? Sure?

I actually liked the film mostly due to being a fan of Tang Wei and Michael Mann's efforts to produce an obvious love letter to Asia and Southeast Asia.  It's easy to understand why several characters disappeared midway through the flick considering how most of the budget was probably spent filming in places like Jakarta, Malaysia, mainland China and Hong Kong. Blackhat is also substantially better than the overly stylish but incredibly boring Miami Vice (2006).


Almost all movies and TV shows are showing how bad USB sticks are so why do we still see them in movies so much?

Hemsworth is likable in his roles but his turn as a brilliant ex-con who is friends with a Chinese defense officer is difficult to swallow. He suffers from the same problems Hugh Jackman experienced in 2001's Swordfish (minus Travolta, Halle Berry's nipples and a blowjob while breaking into a secure server). Hemsworth does his best with the script but it's clear his Australian accent occasionally slips in. His pairing with popular Chinese superstar Wang Leehom works for the most part, though it is actually Leehom who drives most of the movie. Leehom's exchanges with old buddy Hemsworth and FBI agent Viola Davis are probably the most character-driven scenes in a movie which has so little to offer in terms of character development.

Having had a sterling list of mainland Chinese movies under her belt, it's sad that Tang Wei is reduced to a wholly irrelevant flower vase role here. Western audiences unfamiliar with her work probably aren't impressed with her fragile demeanor, but it's not Wei's fault either as her script really doesn't let her do much other than fall for glowering Hemsworth and practice her English, which is an improvement over Gong Li's efforts in Mann's Miami Vice. Davis, the only other female character in the film, has an unforgiving role that reminded me of Octavia Spencer's turn in another semi-Asian film with a Marvel actor in the lead (2013's Snowpiercer with Chris Evans).

One of the difficult things about making a film involving computers is that it's difficult to keep audiences interested with people looking at monitors.

There is a hefty amount of traveling in the film and not enough actual events or movement in the plot. There's a frequent drop in logic such as the scene involving the irradiated hard drives at the power plant, but this isn't unusual with Mann's movies. Although the brutal brawl in the restaurant and shootout involving Hemsworth during the climax were pointless, it's actually a respite from all the planning and intermittent conversations between the characters (and I'm not even a fan of action scenes anymore). As a guy who hates guns and firearms, however, I would've preferred less shooting and more sudo bash and whois commands in the film.

Seagate Scorpio? How about some SSDs?

The squalor and odd locales Mann films in Blackhat are pretty recognizable, though most Western audiences will probably shrug and scratch their head at the behavior of the Asians that appear all throughout the film. It's sad that Blackhat failed to highlight the proficiency of tech use and implementation in Asia (underground or mainstream)- a reality that is largely unrecognized in the West. Instead, the movie has a European antagonist, while Leehom and Hemsworth have an MIT background.


Asian banks are not as easy to break as piggy banks.

Audiences would probably find the last act as anti-climactic as Tang Wei and Hemsworth go about their scheme. Even the last scene at the airport seemed long and drawn out. However, anyone working in IT or management will agree that the execution of a plan is never exciting, particularly if everything goes perfectly. Apart from a minor hitch, Hemsworth's methodical retaliation was as smooth as Tang Wei's complexion. In fact, the nicely handled ending wasn't bad, though overall it was disappointing how much potential Blackhat had wasted as a film and how much of it was reduced to a typical Hollywood flick.


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