Blackhat_posterBlackhat couldn’t have been released at a better time.  Hot on the heels of the Sony hacks, it’s positioned to play on our collective anxieties as well as a cultural zeitgeist. Cyberterrorism, invocations of 9/11, a burgeoning xenophobia, this is exactly the kind of volatile cocktail relevant thrillers can be made from.  Expecting such a slick, noir thriller from director Michael Mann (Thief, Heat, Collateral), we instead get a clunky, slow paced, non-spectacle that strains to keep up with the times.

“It’s not about zeroes or ones.” –Hathaway

The movie opens in China, at the Chai Wan Nuclear Power Plant.  Panning from computer terminals through wires down to the level of creeping code, Mann breathes a semblance of cinematic verve into a cyber-attack. The power plant suffers a meltdown. Unfortunately, this harrowing sequence was the last visually interesting thing he accomplished in the movie.

On the plus side, Blackhat features a talented, diverse cast; on the downside, they are all but wasted.  Tasked to get to the bottom of the attack, Chinese agent Chen Dawai (Chinese music star Wang Leehom) liaises with the FBI, Carol Barrett (The Help and How to Get Away with Murder’s Viola Davis).  He has no problem enlisting his sister, Chen Lien (Lust, Caution’s Tang Wei), to be a part of the team.  And then the first move in his investigation: get his one-time MIT roommate, Nicholas Hathaway (Thor’s Chris Hemsworth) sprung from jail to help them out.

Hemsworth, no matter how many times he unbuttons his shirt, isn’t convincing as a genius computer hacker.  That’s not entirely his fault as the dialogue throughout the movie is so lifeless, it’s no wonder the cast seem to sleepwalk through their delivery.  The script goes out of its way to portray Hathaway as an honorable guy, certainly morese than the government he’s working for or the villain they’re pursuing.  His stint in prison is white-washed as his life simply taking a turn after what amounts to a bar brawl defending a lady.  Not even prison can keep him down, as he does “his time, not theirs.”  Prison life apparently gave him super powers as he’s gone from hacker to badass, able to deal with all manner of combat and weapons.

Untitled Michael Mann ProjectThe plot chases itself, meandering from location to location like a poor man’s James Bond, not giving much clue as to what’s at stake in any given scene.  One of the problems is that there is no black hat dynamic at work.  There’s the largely unexplored idea that Hathaway might be as dangerous as the person they’re looking for.  There’s the largely unexplored battle of wits between Hathaway and the shadowy villain.  There’s zero chemistry between any of the characters which makes the love interest thrown in particularly jarring.  With no emotional core, Blackhat comes across as tech porn with guns.

The movie takes a turn, solving its inability to figure out what to do with most of the characters in the most direct way.  The problem with how the characters are handled was brought home in one sequence.  A character gets shot and Hathaway runs over to him, shouting his name, then cradles him as he dies.  Yet the two never had so much as an exchange, much less the audience given a clue that they were supposed to care about that character.

But by this point, the film has buried the audience under several blankets of “just don’t think about it.”  Like how such an obvious outsider as Hathaway, in a film whose action is largely set in Malaysia, China, and Indonesia, seems to walk about with nary a glance.  Or how so many people can brandish weapons in so many crowds without notice.  Or what Hathaway brought to the table in terms of investigation skills that the FBI didn’t have covered.  Or why a villainous hacker who could make $74M in one attack would bother with any more of an intricate plan to … make money.

blackhat-image-tang-wei-wang-leehomWe live in an age of terrorism, where an attack could arrive any day from around any corner.  In classic westerns, the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black hats.  Hathaway may have done some bad things, but that wasn’t the end of his story.  God chooses to work through a failed people for reasons we may never understand. We are cracked vessels, works in progress. God doesn’t give up on us … we give up on ourselves. We aren’t defined by our failings and stumbling. We’re defined by how we get back up, bruised knees and all, dust ourselves off, and keep on our journey.  We may make mistakes, but we can acknowledge them, do the work of pursuing and accepting forgiveness, and then lead lives that reflect that redemption.

Blackhat had many problems.  The danger of movies, much less thrillers, revolving around computer hacking is that they have to find ways to essentially make typing and looking at a screen interesting.  No amount of blue lighting and jittery camerawork is going to make that interesting.  And while trying to create plot twists, the movie becomes unnecessarily convoluted.  Half the time, it is unclear what’s going on or why the characters are doing anything that they’re doing.  In short, Blackhat is filled with characters not interesting enough to make a character study out of, unmemorable dialogue, and not enough tension to sustain itself.  Blackhat is ultimately sprawling and empty.  Like its stars, it’s pretty to look at, but not given much to do.