Much of the surface of Blackhat, a global thriller based around computer hacker crime, seems to fit into the cornball pigeon-hole that 90s-nostalgic digital natives would instantly make for it. Chris Hemsworth retrofits the computer-hacker role to fit his brand of buff-everyman heroism, and you better believe he gets the chance to mush lines like “it’s not all ones and zeroes!” in his American accent before he’s done running code-line circles around FBI friends and terrorist foes. Yet, just as the cabal of bad guys manipulate system interfaces to hide their dirty work, that cliché is the misleading surface of a whole that is unmistakeably director Michael Mann: romanticising, yet steel-blue in temperament, and always treading the line between surreal and tactile. Duplicitous but purposeful men are right in his wheelhouse, so he goes to town and back on a tale about men and man-made systems, with absorbing results.
From the moment when Hemsworth’s Hathaway is furloughed from prison by his college roommate-turned-Chinese cyber warfare officer Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) to track down a destructive cyber-terrorist, the movie seems to exist in the hum of monitors. Mann and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh quickly establish that infamous motion-blurred digital canvas familiar to anyone who’s seen Mann’s output in the last ten years. It would appear to suit the subject matter better than a Prohibition gangster saga, but it fits this story’s emotional dynamic as well. Traipsing around the world with an ensemble of race-diverse peacekeepers (including Viola Davis, Tang Wei, Holt McCallany and others), borders and statehood slowly degrade under the radiation of the new world order, and so every space they enter – thanks largely to production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas – feels less and less like a natural habitat. Ad graphics fill the view from windows of the good guys’ bases, and the score by Harry Gregson-Williams and Atticus Ross pulses with the synthesised fuzz that’s equally reminiscent of both Ross’ Reznor/Fincher collaborations and a CD-ROM game. As the tagline rightfully intimates, it’s a world growing more foreign despite its veneer of verisimilitude, and so quietly slipping farther out of the control of its own architects.
Regarding the key architect in all of this, Hemsworth as a gritty leading man is curious to behold. I suspect the character was first conceived with a gawkier body type in mind, since it would lend his plight in the last third a transformative effect that no witticisms or Julian Assange hairstyle would match.1 I also suspect Hemsworth’s attachment meant getting the project off the ground, and under that assumption it’s not a bad trade. He is a terrific vessel for the action that unfolds, of which there is a surprising amount that counterbalances the impassive scenes of discussion and pontification with the FBI crew. Dryburgh’s handheld cinematography hustle to keep up with his striking figure in equally striking set piece geographies, from cramped Hong Kong alleyways to that of a surreal Indonesian climax, which configure looming obelisks and obstacles out of the metal and concrete. The damage within them can’t be ignored, so they become structures both of the world and of its ruin.
The mystery plot unfolding through all of this is hard to keep up with, and Mann seems to know it. He throws Hathaway and co further in the deep end in a late twist designed to blow away the early tone in favour of one that sits well alongside the realistic face-offs of his other work, complete with a romantic sub-plot that feels customary to the point of inertness. When the dust settles on the drama, he renders those left standing in the sunglasses-wearing cool of modern demigods as eagerly as he throws us into a dizzying CG fly-through of circuitry in the opening. This heady love of archetype creates a strikingly similar tone to his Miami Vice filmic adaptation, and so the overall work belongs to that twilight realm between our harsh reality and transcendence.2 Entering Blackhat is entering a world that’s strangely familiar, but strange nonetheless, and with it being dumped straight onto Australian home media after a paltry theatrical run overseas, it’s a shame many won’t get that transporting effect in its intended home.
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