Movie Review: Blackhat

BreakingModernBlackhat‘s storyline: Set within the world of global cybercrime, Blackhat follows a furloughed convict (Chris Hemsworth) and his American and Chinese partners as they hunt a high-level cybercrime network from Chicago to Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Jakarta.

Becket’s take: Michael Mann’s attention to detail in depicting information security and careful subversion of stereotypes just isn’t enough to save Blackhat from its biggest enemy — a massive problem with pacing.



When both a Hong Kong nuclear plant and the Mercantile Trade Exchange in Chicago are targeted by an unknown hacker, a team of American and Chinese agents needs to think outside the box to track down the perpetrator. FBI agent Carol Barrett (played flawlessly by Viola Davis), working closely with the leader of the Chinese team Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), decide that the only way to catch the black hat is to bring in convicted hacker, Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), who originally wrote the code being used in these new hacks. Accompanied by Chen’s sister, Lien (Wei Tang), Hathaway must chase the black hat through the code to thwart an even-bigger disaster.

Techies Rejoice

Many in Silicon Valley are lauding the film for its overall hacking and information-security accuracies. Google’s own Security Princess (yes, that’s actually her title) Parisa Tabriz called Blackhat “the most accurate information security movie I’ve ever seen.”

There is also praise for the film’s work to subvert the typical stereotypes inherent in hacking movies. Security consultant Mark Abene said:

“Unlike others, this is a film about a real person, not a stereotype — a real guy with real problems thrust into a real situation. The technology — and the disasters — in the film were real, or at least plausible.”

The film’s director and producer, Michael Mann, keeps the film relevant both with information-security concerns and with current tech tools and techniques. You’ll see a YubiKey used early in the film to help protect data, and you’ll also see a rather clever way to breach bank security — ahem, asking a hot girl for help. Lien tells the front desk staffer that she spilled coffee on her report, and would he pretty please print her a new one using this USB flash drive, allowing Hathaway access into the bank’s system.


Is There a Hack for Speeding Up Time?

With so many details in place and a strong acting roster, you’d think this would be a slam dunk, but unfortunately the film just never delivers. Hemsworth is great at looking stoic, and he is constantly brooding, but his lines are delivered with a cringe-worthy accent and ham-fisted subtlety. The storyline is overly complicated with frenetic and unexplained changes in location, yet the pacing of the film as a whole is almost unendurably slow.

There are some glimmers of what the movie could have been — Davis and Tang deliver some high-quality acting and are the silver lining to the whole 133-minute snoozefest. The scene depicting the hack into the power plant security pulls the viewer into the computer system with Matrix-like dexterity, finding a cinematic way to represent the 0s and 1s while setting us up for a thriller of epic proportions. Unfortunately, at the conclusion of this scene the biggest climactic moment of the film is over, and we’re left slogging through the rest of the film waiting for something else to happen.

An interesting side note: Kevin Poulsen, a former black hat hacker and current digital security journalist was brought on to the film to serve as “hacker adviser.” He wrote a fascinating article highlighting some current federal legislation designed to broaden the reach of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). He suggested that the right course of action is to:

“Pour money into research, offer incentives for organizations to invest in security, pass disclosure laws that require public reporting of breaches, so consumers can hold negligent companies accountable. Blindly boosting sentences for the few hackers who get caught will do nothing to help. And outlawing security tools just because they can be abused will only aid the real blackhats.”

Food for thought. If you need to see the movie, I’d rent it.

For BMod, I’m  .

Blackhat movie poster: Roya Millard

All screenshots: Becket Morgan

Becket Morgan

Author: Becket Morgan

Based in central Vermont, Becket Morgan covers apps and lifestyle tech for BreakingModern. Follow her at @becketmorgan on Twitter or +Becket Morgan on G+.

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