The following contains spoilers for Blackhat. You have been warned.
It’s 2015! It’s Michael Mann! It’s a movie that was almost given an awards-qualifying run at the end of last year! It…wasn’t very good. Erik Paschall and I tried to unpack why.
Erik: Okay, what the hell is going on? First Ridley Scott and now Michael Mann. Two very respectable veteran directors made two of the dullest, most lifeless movies I’ve seen in some time. Blackhat was the first film I saw in 2015, and I hope this isn’t an omen for the rest of the year’s cinema, or my life.
Tim: Have faith, Erik! Last year my first film out of the gate was that Kellan Lutz Hercules movie. Not a great way to start the year, but 2014 had its share of quality films nonetheless. The weirder part of your comparison (Scott and Mann) to me is that with Ridley Scott, we kind of saw this coming. Robin Hood was a little lackluster, Prometheus was so-so, and The Counselor was flatly bad even with a (what should have been great, but maybe wasn’t) script from Cormac McCarthy and one of the best casts you’ll ever see. With Mann, this is his first movie since Public Enemies in 2009. I don’t remember that movie all that well, but I think it was ok, right? And just a couple movies before that was multiple-Oscar nominee Collateral (albeit for Supporting Actor and Editing).
Erik: Public Enemies was dull in some parts, and until now I thought it was Mann’s weakest, but it still had actual characters and some memorable moments – I think the FBI raid on John Dillinger’s hideout was an excellent sequence. Blackhat felt like an obligation, like Mann had to make something topical. Like someone said, “Hacking is topical, so let’s make a film where a hacker is the bad guy. America’s relationship with China is topical, so let’s throw that in.” Even moments in the film seemed to happen because they’re obligatory crime tropes. The criminal good guy rejects the authorities’ initial offer, the criminal falls in love with the only woman within his age range, his best friend dies, etc.
Tim: And don’t forget that he makes sure we know he doesn’t steal from real people, just the big bad banks.
Erik: Did he? Frankly, I can barely remember anything about him, or any of the other characters. Did anyone have a personality in this picture?
Tim: There’s one throwaway line about how he ended up in jail and how it still didn’t mean he’s a bad person. But no, to your point, there is almost zero attempt at character development here, nevermind some actual character development. Chris Hemsworth’s Nick Hathaway is absent for a fair chunk of the beginning of the film before being the literal last man standing by the end, the backstory about him being Chen Dawai’s (Leehom Wang) college roommate is in there just so they can coexist without some need to get to know each other (which might have actually been helpful, now that I think about it)…and so Hathaway can randomly bang his sister, who apparently had the hots for him from reputation alone. Blackhat sacrifices its characters on the altar of timely narrative. Unfortunately, in this case that’s also a false god.
Erik: Here’s one of the biggest questions nagging at me through this entire ordeal: Why was Hathaway the main character and not Dawai. Not just because we see Dawai first, but he seemed (at first) to have a much more interesting backstory and character. Given that he’s loyal to China, but has some roots in the U.S., I thought maybe they were going to use him to comment on the relations between the countries. I guess it was more important that we have an attractive white guy as our lead.
Tim: Yeah, who do you think is going to sell more tickets, Chris Hemsworth or Leehom Wang? But I agree that Dawai certainly has the more interesting potential. Hemsworth’s character can basically be summed up by, “I’m really good at hacking. And self-discipline.” Actually, that’s not a terrible leaping off point for the character, especially if Blackhat had actually connected that to a stronger feeling that he wasn’t in the wrong for his crimes. But the movie never goes anywhere with it. The narrative is completely divorced from the characters, absent the fact that there’s a minor professional intersection. There aren’t any emotional stakes at play. We’re never made to feel Hathaway’s angst at the possibility of an early release. I think it’s kind of summed up in the scene where he breaks into the NSA, if we really want to call it that. He knows that it could expedite catching the hacker, which means he’s free sooner. But if he’s caught, that means more charges and a longer sentence. There’s no motivation for him to do that stupid, sloppy gimmick of trying to con the guy out of his password.
Erik: I have a few more questions: Where did Hathaway learn how to fight or use a gun? Did I miss the part of his backstory where in between hacking and going to prison, he was a Navy SEAL? Did they expect us to see Hemsworth and think, “Yeah, he’s Thor, he can kill people with his bare hands?” Also, why did every Chinese person we meet have a perfect grasp on English except for Dawai’s sister (no I don’t remember her name!), who I think had the most English lines in the film?
Tim: Wait, which other Chinese people spoke? The most memorable bit of Chinese people on screen for me was that military cabinet meeting at the beginning of the movie where the entire scene’s audio looked out of sync.
Erik: You know, the guys in the van who were spying and stuff. And “Trang!” the guy we know we’re supposed to care about because someone (maybe Hathaway) calls his name when he dies.
Tim: Oooohhhh yeah, I’d forgotten all about him, but now that you mention it, I recall not being able to contain my laughter when he suddenly switches from (what I presume to be) Mandarin to perfect, unaccented English. Ugh.
Erik: During the obligatory pre-sex dinner scene between attractive white guy and Chinese guy’s sister, I couldn’t understand half of what she was saying, and I’m pretty sure that was supposed to be the time when we develop their characters.
Tim: I don’t know. I didn’t have trouble understanding her, but I don’t remember any info that gave them any depth. That sex scene was very sudden and very bad. Shifting gears a bit though, what did you think of the film’s visuals? As I said in my review, I found them befuddlingly strange, but maybe I was seeing things?
Erik: The only thing I was put off by, regarding visuals, was something I was already dreading. At some point, maybe around the time of Collateral, Mann got very into the handheld camera technique. I think you mentioned in your review, it’s a bit similar to Paul Greengrass? In any case, it was here and I have no idea why. It didn’t feel like a stylistic choice, it felt like man suddenly handed directorial duties off to someone who hadn’t completed their first semester of film school.
Tim: There’s one shot in particular I recall from late in the film. It’s when Hathaway and Chen (the aforementioned sister whose name you couldn’t remember – I had to look it up) are waiting on the hacker to call them back to arrange a meet. Hathaway’s cell phone is in focus on the table with them on the bed in the background. Hathaway gets up to get the phone and as he lifts it to talk, the camera picks up and travels with him. But it’s not a smooth boom up and dolly in, something that we immediately connote with increased tension, an important moment when all surroundings become excluded. It really is as though someone’s just carrying a handcam around the scene like they’re at the family Christmas party and just trying to get reaction shots as everyone’s opening presents.
Erik: I wish I could comment, but I think by that point in the film I had mostly tuned out due to boredom, and disappointment at the big “reveal” of the bad guy. Although, maybe Mann secretly wishes he’d gotten in on the Dogme 95 movement.
Tim: Yeah…if not for Toshiba et al. having something to say about it (and clearly their checkbooks did), this might have fallen into that camp. Switching gears a little again, what did you think of that early CGI sequence of going into the increasingly minute computer components?
Erik: I thought it was kind of an interesting idea, but it didn’t really do anything for me. Maybe because I’m not a computer expert, so I didn’t really understand what was going on. Perhaps they could have made the sequence more effective by having a voiceover explaining what the computer was for, and what kind of catastrophe could occur if the thing we see happening happens to it.
Tim: More analytical than I ever got, but I think I followed it conceptually. The short version – and short because it’s not worth going into detail – is that it shrunk through components til it got to the tiny electrical binary switches that make computers work, and then built back out from there. I thought the sequence was kind of cool at first, but then it kept going on, and on. And ON. And then it did it a second time. The idea was plenty clear far before the sequence was over, and it wasn’t even an idea that the movie ever returned to. Hathaway never codes much beyond a couple basic command prompts, something anyone with some basic knowledge should be able to do. Movies are notoriously bad at showing computer programming. Hathaway’s genius should have been in finding clever workarounds and loopholes within the code, stuff that essentially used those tiny binary switches to trick the bigger components. That would have been thematically, and maybe even narratively significant. But again, it is hard to show.
Erik: One thing I thought the movie did a very good job of was making hacking and coding seem uninteresting. In the scenes where they were discussing what the hacker did, I had trouble following what they were saying (though that may have more to do with the fact that everyone seemed bored in this film). Also, it failed to really explain what the stakes were, or set up some sort of timeline, to give the film a sense of urgency. More than a few times it felt like the characters were just wandering around with no clear goal in mind.
Tim: Man, that compliment was so backhanded, it’s like you tried to stab the movie in the neck, but your knife was deflected by a rolled up towel.
Erik: I feel like you’re referencing the final act wherein Hathaway suddenly morphed into Jason Bourne.
Tim: Why yes. Yes I am.
Erik: Can we discuss the main villain just a little bit. I think this movie should have been released in 2014 because last year had some of the most ineffectual movies villains ever (from Ramses in Exodus, to the Kabuki mask guy in Big Hero 6). For most of the film, the hacker (he never gets a name does he?) is mostly in the background, it felt like when they finally did show him the script writer had suddenly realized, “Crap I forgot about the central antagonist.”
Tim: It was so weird that they showed him those couple times early on – and intentionally withheld his face for what turned out to be no reason at all – since the villain was so functionally nonexistent for so much of the movie. It felt like after those initial attacks he was just waiting for the DOD team to come get him.
Erik: And when he finally is on screen, he’s just a middle-aged pudgy guy with a beard who dreams and people go away, or some shit. Then he makes one stupid mistake after another, following Hathaway’s every command, and just standing around while Hathaway comes at him with a gun. I’m surprised he didn’t trip and stab himself with his own knife. And whoever made the trailers for the film seemed to realize how pathetic he was because they tried to build him up as some philosophy-spouting megalomaniac, who is constantly taunting the heroes.
Yeah, to be honest, by the time the villain is relevant again, I’d checked out. Actually, I checked out about the time Hathaway and Chen sleep together. Just done. I had to sit there, so I gave Blackhat a fair chance to turn it around, but it didn’t.
Erik: What’s sad (and the reason I think I was so put off) is this didn’t have to be so bad. As I said, the film covers some topical issues. Hacking is a big deal in the world we live in – and it seems to getting scarier by the day. I feel like there could have been a great film in here. Especially with Mann in charge. If nothing else I thought we’d get some cool action scenes and character interactions – Mann’s forte. Do you think this could have succeeded with someone else in the director’s chair, or was the story just unsalvageable?
Tim: I agree that there are some very compelling ideas – that the film runs tangent to. Blackhat could’ve been a better movie, but with this script it was never really going anywhere. The characters, the plot, the themes a story like this might be equipped to address, it’s just not unified here. I still would love to hear stories from production, because I find it hard to believe this is all Michael Mann’s fault, but whatever went terribly wrong went wrong in a movie that was going to be hard to draw much quality out of in the first place.
Erik: Well, here’s hoping the rest of the year will be better movie-wise. At least the bar has been set pretty low, so it can only go up from here.
Tim: Hooray for optimism!