For a film that opens with a nuclear plant threatening meltdown and jumps about all over the world from LA to Jakarta, Blackhat is not afraid to go small. Incredibly small in fact, as Michael Mann takes us deep into the inner workings of a series of computers, with circuit boards looking like microscopic cities, the data they process visible as waves of light. It’s Mann’s first film since 2009’s Public Enemies, and the subject matter of high-end hacking allows him to deploy many of his favourite tricks. His love of grids plays perfectly into some very impressive visuals, bringing lines of code to exciting life as they zip around cyberspace, and the globetrotting action is typically faultless.
The highly contemporary plot (made brilliantly relevant by the major hacking scandals of the last year) also means that Mann’s love of digital film-making feels right at home here, making no attempt to look like film. The result has put some people off the film, and close-ups focusing on the actors can look odd, with their faces looking almost stretched to fill the screen, but it’s absolutely worth the occasional jarring moment. No other director can make their night skies look quite like Mann’s, and his techniques really come to fruition in the neon-soaked streets of Hong Kong.
Chris Hemsworth plays Nicholas Hathaway, a brilliant hacker imprisoned for a cyber attack on a series of banks. Furloughed so he can help track down the mysterious villain – a ‘blackhat’ hacker – behind the nuclear disaster, he teams up with a Chinese attaché led by Captain Chen (Leehom Wang), in one of the most authentic takes on virtual warfare ever put on screen. Obviously meticulously researched, and presenting the lead hacker as more than a fat nerd cliché, Blackhat goes some way to righting the many wrongs committed by Hollywood in this genre.
The film has its problems, with first time writer Morgan Foehl occasionally hitting on some very clunky dialogue, and only Viola Davis, as FBI agent Carol Bennett, gives anything more than a functional performance. The nebulous and underdeveloped (there’s no Heat-style back and forth here) villain also made for a final showdown where it’s hard to feel fully invested in the character’s fate. However, when any lack of substance threatens to derail the film, Mann’s impeccable style saves it. From some truly unique visuals in every scene to thrilling action scenes with real weight and energy behind them, Blackhat gives fans of Michael Mann almost everything they could hope for.