Review: Blackhat

Untitled Michael Mann Project

In the wake of the hacking of Sony Pictures late last year, cyber warfare has increasingly positioned itself as the next stage of human conflict. This astonishing type of combat need not involve thousands of soldiers and weaponry, simply the skill and patience of a single individual. The act of hacking itself claims no lives, but the intended ramifications have the potential to destroy entire organizations and potentially nations. This new frontier handsomely suits Michael Mann, who has some history with depicting professionals at the bleeding edge of their capabilities. His latest film Blackhat may be thin on character nuance, but excels in narrative propulsion and contemporary relevance.

With a mere keystroke, a nuclear reactor in Hong Kong goes into meltdown, killing several and injuring dozens more. With another keystroke, the stock exchange in Chicago goes haywire. Both of these events seemingly have no connection, but they happen to be the work of a single man. Now, both the Americans and Chinese must forge a tenuous partnership in tracking him down. Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) of the FBI and Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) and his sister Lien (Wei Tang) of the Chinese intelligence find themselves making an unlikely alliance even more risky by recruiting an expert hacker currently serving time in federal prison. Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) is a former classmate of Dawai’s and may be the only person who can track down the nefarious hacker whose plans are just beginning to unfold. As their hunt takes them into the heart of Asia, the team is faced with resorting to unsafe and ethically compromising territory.

For a narrative that covers both international, political, and technological terrain, Blackhat does an admirable job of telling its story comprehensibly without resorting to oversimplification. Surely liberties were taken with overall accuracy, but they work for the sake of narrative expediency. When it comes to the actual dialogue, Blackhat navigates best in the procedural elements than in the development of the characters. All of the actors can be bought as experts in their profession, save perhaps Hemsworth, whose physique suggests Olympic aptitude over computing intellect. The bigger issue is that none of these characters are particularly interesting as humans, even though the narrative tries to fit in an unfulfilling relationship subplot. Luckily, everything pertaining to hunting the hacker makes for engrossing cinema.

Michael Mann is certainly a strong visual storyteller, and the opening scene of the film is a prime example. An interconnected web of lights around the world gradually zooms in tighter and tighter until we are at the atomic level of electrical signals traveling along the information superhighway. One foreign signal invades this highway, and like a virus, spreads rapidly and effortlessly, causing a chain reaction that leads to the Hong Kong nuclear meltdown. This entire montage is achieved without a single human word spoken. As Blackhat pertains to advancing technology, it clearly reflects its director’s preoccupation with the digital age of filmmaking. Mann has been an advocate of digital for over a decade, and its clear that his approach gives his films a deliberate aesthetic. Mann and director of photography Stuart Dryburgh keep the lighting conservative, and at times the footage is grainy and imperfect, especially during night scenes. This lends the film a consistent visual urgency and comes closer to a documentary feel than what most handheld camerawork strives to emulate.

By some bizarre fortune, Blackhat could not have arrived at a more timely moment. Recent domestic and international developments have given credence to the advancement of hacking and cyber warfare, and the film shows how individuals and organizations are willing to engage with unsavory methods, regardless of whether the intentions are good or ill. In Mann’s film, the ends justify the means, but at what point does the slope become too slippery?

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~ by romancinema on January 18, 2015.

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