The Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas director Joe Swanberg wrote an interesting piece about Sex Tape last year. In it, he discussed the ways that technology has limited storytelling. He suggested that technology’s vast capabilities have now provided simple and somewhat boring solutions to the kinds of circumstances that would have once led to thrilling, humorous and otherwise engaging drama. The example he used was the classic Seinfeld episode The Parking Garage and how, today, the characters would simply need a smartphone to solve the dilemma in a matter of seconds.
However, there is another problem that Swanberg didn’t address regarding storytelling in the digital age. The Internet is so fundamentally unsexy that when it forms a major part of the narrative visualising it is, generally, painfully dull. Any attempts to make it look entertaining often come at the price of authenticity, seeming contrived or corny. A particularly cringe-inducing example is the abysmally named (and suitably abysmal) chatroom thriller U Want Me 2 Kill Him?. Understanding that watching two teens typing on their laptops would be monotonous, each character speaks their words aloud in the film as if it was a conventional dialogue exchange. The movie’s inability to understand online communication – or rather, how the movie disregards it for the needs of storytelling – was embarrassing to watch.
This poses a unique challenge for filmmakers looking to tell realistic stories about the subject of terrorism in the 21st century. After all, the days of Die Hard style stand-offs between an armed enemy and the law are over. Today, cyber-terrorism and cyber-attacks are the most common forms of terrorism. In the last week alone, the New York Mayor’s Office, the Dutch government and one hundred banks have fallen victim to this type of online crime. It is a phenomenon summed up perfectly in a quote by the CIA’s former director, which was utilised on the Blackhat trailer. He said: “The next Pearl Harbour we confront could very well be a cyber attack”.
But as a filmmaker, how do you shoot the ‘cyber’ element? Someone sat in their basement writing a destructive code that will electronically hack into a bank’s vault is stale compared to a group of armed criminals bursting through the roof, machine guns in tow. The first filmmaker to achieve this – to make a thrilling crime drama in which a line of incomprehensible code is more potent than the heaviest artillery – appears to be Michael Mann. He turns cyber-crime into the stuff of cinematic dreams with his remarkable new film Blackhat. It stars Chris Hemsworth as a convicted hacker named Hathaway, an archetypal Mann protagonist – stoic, shades, slicked back hair. He is released in order to assist the FBI and Chinese authorities (the latter is run by one of Hathaway’s old college buddies) in capturing a hacker responsible for the attack on a power plant in China which resembles a code Hathaway once wrote. On the job, Hathaway and the Chinese agent Chen Lien fall in love.
Part of its appeal is that, unlike the aforementioned movies that attempt to navigate around the use of technology to tell compelling stories, Blackhat embraces it. Mann is known for his thorough investigation into a subject before he makes a film, whether it is journalism for his drama The Insider or undercover police work for his excellent Miami Vice reboot, and Blackhat is no different. As its team of Chinese and American agents attempt to follow a data trail to the perpetrator of the cyber-attack, Mann embraces the complex ways technology can be utilised to trace digital footsteps across the globe. He never sacrifices them for the sake of convenience or traditional entertainment, even when some of the coding jargon becomes difficult for most people to follow.
But, although impressive, Mann’s interests are not solely on dramatising the digital age and telling a compellingly realistic narrative about cyber crime. In fact, like many of his most recent movies, Mann is all but indifferent to the narrative. It is telling that in one of maybe three scenes in which Hathaway discusses his past, the sound fades away and we are left to watch him mouth the words, mute, under the film’s pulsating synth score (Mann much prefers to do character development through gestures). His interest is instead on how he can visualise this digital world.
He succeeds right from the off: a shot of the Earth as a blurred power-grid from space that quickly morphs into the microscopic journey of a single piece of data flowing through strips on its way to the aforementioned power plant. It captures a world in which the constant flow of information has formed chaos. It also emphasises the job of Blackhat‘s agents to bring order to it; to find something tangible in the physical world – the identity of the cyber-terrorist – among the intangible chaos of ones and zeroes in the digital world. (The line between the tangible and intangible is one of the major themes of Blackhat and is also explored via Hathaway and Chen Lien’s relationship. They fall in love, for example, when she touches his arm in a simple but beautiful moment.)
Micheal Mann’s unusual use of HD video cameras seems absolutely essential to Blackhat‘s exploration of this chaotic digital world. He has been experimenting with the use of Viper Filmstream cameras since Collateral, exploring how digital filmmaking can have its own aesthetic as opposed to simply emulating that of film, but these images have never felt more appropriate than they do here. Turning architecture, light and even his own characters into abstract and cosmic digital streaks, everyone and everything is shot like a flowing mass of data in Blackhat. Note, for instance, how the people parading at the festival in its climax are almost identical of the data strips from the opening scene.
Mann’s vision is fiercely unconventional. It is incendiary – maybe even revelatory – in a major studio picture like Blackhat. This may, in fact, be the most abstract Hollywood film since his own Miami Vice reboot almost ten years ago. The visual style is a major part of that, but so too is the absolutely outlandish use of sound and the strange way he directs his actors like androids slowly learning emotions. It is so elusive at times that Blackhat seems to have much more in common with art house experimentalism than it does a traditional mainstream action movie. This is precisely what makes Mann’s film so exciting though; it’s the work of a director making films in a whole new way, marrying a unique digital aesthetic with a topical story about our technology-infused existence.
Blackhat is out on blu ray, DVD and is available to buy or rent on demand from Monday 22nd June.