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Hackers Director Talks About Why They Portrayed The Internet That Way

Laurence Mason, Jonny Lee Miller, Angelia Jolie and Matthew Lillard look into the camera in a promotional image for Hackers

When Hackers was released 25 years ago, cinephiles probably could not have predicted how much of our lives would eventually revolve around the internet. While the movie may look a bit dated, the themes it addresses -- like the way things that happen online can have real-world implications -- still feel pretty relevant today. And it turns out Hackers’ director had a very specific reason for portraying the internet the way he did.

Iain Softley was one of many movie directors who tried to tackle the impact of the internet in the mid-1990s. Though Hackers is, in many ways, very much a product of its time, it has amassed a bit of a cult following in the two and a half decades since it first hit theaters. Though it stars future A-lister Angelina Jolie, as well as her future-former husband Jonny Lee Miller, Laurence Mason, and ‘90s stalwart Matthew Lillard, it also draws fans in with its over-the-top aesthetic. Or maybe it’s because it reminds us of a time when the stakes associated with the internet only seemed liked they could get as high as they are today.

The director told Nerdist that he’s well aware many of the movie’s elements don’t quite gel with reality, and there’s a reason for that -- the details others hone in on aren’t the ones he was focused on:

The areas where we were criticized were for being unrealistic, but I wasn’t trying to make a tech film. I wanted to be accurate about what it meant to these kids, what it felt like, the imaginative projection of the fantasy world that this represented for them. I wanted the film to reflect that.

He also addressed one of Hackers’ most memorable pieces -- the way it creates an anthropomorphized version of the internet:

Which brings us to the ‘City of Text.’ You don’t see anything when somebody is hacking. It’s data, it’s naughts and ones. So the challenge for me was to create a parallel environment on which the story could take place. I think I saw an MIT suggestion of a three-dimensional way data could be stacked to make databases easy to navigate. I wanted the inner world to reflect the outer world, to be a parallel or mirror, so I created a digital Manhattan.

According to Iain Softley, bringing the City of Text to life was a logistical challenge but one that helped him fully realize his vision:

But I didn’t want it to be digital, which was very 2D at the time, as text or numbers on a screen. My inspiration in many ways was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, where they’re approaching the space station. [Cinematographer] Andrzej Sekula shot it on 35mm on a slow shutter speed, which means it’s incredibly dense and rich and colorful. We built this huge set on a small stage at Pinewood Studios, probably 50-100 yards long, and we had a motion control camera. We shot it almost like animation; we’d change the text on the cells. But it gives this incredible physical reality, like you’re moving through this three-dimensional world.

Hackers definitely didn’t get everything about the internet right. But the way it made us think about the world wide web can’t be discounted. Today, in some ways, it’s harder than ever to separate what happens online with what happens in real life. So even if the effects and aesthetic were a little off base, maybe he was onto something after all.