Directed by Michael Mann
Released in 2015
The problem with Rotten Tomatoes and the good-bad polarization it has wrought on the wide release of films is that movies like Blackhat slip through the cracks. Movies like Blackhat: narratively suspect, baldly miscast, frequently silly and profoundly cinematic. Screened before solemn awards fare, Blackhat’s trailer only magnified those first three qualities at the expense of the fourth, which can only beam from the film proper. You need to actually watch the movie, go figure, with its rhythm and texture and flawed yet mindful visual schema. Blackhat is indeed needlessly lunkheaded at times, but then again so are most Michael Mann films and that does not stop any one of them from being essential viewing.
Director of Manhunter, Heat and Miami Vice, Mann shares the mantle with David Fincher as the Hollywood filmmaker exploring the aesthetic boundaries and philosophical implications of digital cinematography. He has long been able to capture human movement in thrilling, strangely emotional ways, as anyone who has seen the ending of The Last of the Mohicans or The Insider can incoherently testify. Since 2001’s Ali, Mann has shot with obviously digital handheld cameras, producing images replete with noise and motion smearing. It is a style offensive to those who look to James Cameron as the future, which might be one small reason among many as to why Blackhat turned in less than $4 million last weekend, certifying it the year’s first, and possibly worst, bomb.
Or perhaps no one could buy Chris Hemsworth, mighty Thor, as the genius hacker protagonist, introduced reading Baudrillard’s The System of Objects in his prison cell and doing handstand push-ups a minute later. I offer no defense for the realism of Hemsworth’s character, Nick Hathaway, nor can I even claim he is a cogently awesome creation. His dinner table oratory about the surveillance state coexists with shots of him coding on his laptop, blue shirt hanging open, ripped chest exposed. Nothing wrong with that, not at all, but with the love interest, Chen Lien (Tang Wei), falling for him the moment she sees him and her brother, Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), also Hathaway’s best friend and a Chinese cyber warfare expert in his own right, convincing the U.S. and Chinese governments that Hathaway is their Foucault-reading savior, the film takes his appeal for granted without including the suffering or neuroses or bed head to clarify that he is actually human.
Which is not to say that Mann fails to do anything with Hemsworth’s presence. Upon his release from prison, arranged so that he may track down a cyber terrorist who is using code he co-authored years before, Hathaway stares down his freedom, quite literally, in Mann’s trademark cool-guy-with-sunglasses-looking-off-into-the-distance move, but it’s not phony in the least. Immediately succeeding his contemplative pause is a long shot with Hathaway wedged at the top left corner, a sea of grey tarmac below him. Instead of endless sky, Mann gives us concrete ground, foreshadowing the tactile trials to come and dwarfing his hero not against nature but the man-made structures surrounding him. It’s an impressive moment, not redeeming of Hathaway’s haphazard characterization but mapping him onto this hostile world.
The globetrotting that follows incorporates its Chinese players to an organic degree atypical of American blockbusters, with a substantial amount of subtitled dialogue that other films with East Asian box office ambitions should seek to emulate, even if they won’t. At one juncture where Chen Dawai suggests their next move, the camera pans from him to Hathaway to FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis, deadly) as they nod in agreement, a swift paean to and marriage of both globalization and bodies coming to decisions in intimate space.
For all its talk of digital warfare and unseen systems, Blackhat is a devastatingly physical film, where high-energy chase scenes and shoot-outs come to startling, silent ends. When a key character expires from an unexpected volley of bullets, Mann juxtaposes their frozen face with a distant skyscraper reflected in a now-lifeless eye, driving home, in a just a couple seconds, the totality of human life lost, the indifference of the modern cityscape and the possibility of salvation.
Mann packs a million little metaphors like this into Blackhat’s brisk two-hour, 10-minute runtime, spinning action poetry out of admittedly silly material. The opening, in particular, is a roller coaster: We start in space, gazing at an Earth carved by its electronic networks, and get gradually closer and closer, soon riding along an Ethernet cable and finally zooming down an information superhighway of 1s and 0s.
The film’s climax realizes this special effects sequence in human form, as Hathaway closes in on the bad guys by cutting through streams of worshippers observing a Hindu festival in Jakarta. The representational politics are anomalously regrettable (so the faceless Indonesians might as well be code?), but the sequence affirms Mann’s commitment to telling his story, almost purely, through movement, as only expressive, hyperreal digital photography can. It’s not like he has much choice, the script being what it is, but Mann’s authorship makes Blackhat the first work of cinematic art of 2015, as inventive as it is flawed.
3 Stars Out of 5
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.