Mad Skillz

Posted: April 20, 2008 in Narrative

For a short while, it appeared that screenwriters had moved beyond cheap stereotypes when concocting characters. Lots of actors were cast against type, and we had a chance to see some good stories and real acting. However, it didn’t last long and was probably a mistaken impression anyway. Movies often reinforce tired old categories with such ham-fisted inelegance that one wonders why so many lame efforts even get made. The answer is that it’s frequently profitable to make bad movies, which is one reason why cinema doesn’t qualify as art — it’s too bound up with the bottom line.

Two recent movies trot out nearly identical stereotypes in the course of their narratives: Live Free or Die Hard and Transformers. Admittedly, both movies aim low: they’re noisy, cheesy, popcorn movies intended as cheap entertainment (despite being quite expensive to make) and are utterly without pretension to greatness except perhaps in the area of special effects. They’re both loaded with stock characters that are easily recognized and therefore expendable: cops, military guys, villains, kids in peril, and the inevitable hottie or two. What struck me, though, is how similarly the two movies employed a deus ex machina in the form of a computer hacker. Reliance on characters with supernatural power who extricate others from implausible plot tangles is usually considered a narrative crutch. These movies elevate that function to a central theme.

Both movies are about loss of control of technology (or perhaps the threat of superior technology), and there are many computer operators fumbling to maintain or regain control. The supreme hacker characters are startlingly similar. They’re introduced with a knock on the door of a home, where it’s immediately revealed the hacker lives with his mother (or grandmother), is relatively young (usually a teenager), is overweight (presumably from a junk food habit and sitting on his butt all the time), and sorely lacks social skills, being more concerned with his games and gear. (Yelling at or being yelled at by the mother/grandmother is an obvious touch.) But he’s got mad skillz on the computer, and within moments, using only a few keystrokes, he can disable all security precautions and access top-level government or corporate computer networks. (As with handcuffs, if network security were really so easy to bypass, couldn’t one of the computer genius designers work out the equivalent of a padlock? At least then it would only be vulnerable to brute trauma, which hackers never use.)

Omniscient characters who seize control of the computer/ship is a basic element of the Star Trek canon, from Khan to Sybok. We’re not usually bothered with the details of how control was gained. In fact, it was established pretty quickly that showing someone in film actually computing was the kiss of death, so hackers are almost always given an impossible task and 15 seconds to accomplish it. Because that’s more, um, exciting, um, yeah. Maybe if you’re brain dead. Using hackers of relatively good or even flexible character to combat villainous hackers is a self-referential rhetorical device that apparently places both character and plot beyond impeachment by plebian audiences who couldn’t possibly understand the complexity (really, stupidity) of what’s happening onscreen. It’s basically a clash of titans, only using brain power instead of fighting skill. In the real world, I suspect such conflicts would take place over time and in relative silence, like a chess game, each side plotting strike and counterstrike until the king is toppled. For instance, in War Games, the hacker autodials phone lines until he stumbles upon a back door to the Whopper, a supercomputer that runs nuclear scenarios. He then does research at a library to guess the password. It all takes time for the puzzle to develop and be solved. In movies today, I guess one has to check all intelligence at the door, suspend disbelief, and settle in to watch shit blow up, including the computers, until one last mighty typist remains.

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