Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Blackhat‘s technical problems on screen are one of the most ironic things to consider for a film about computing experts. Michael Mann’s latest action thriller is convoluted and overblown, preposterous yet opportune, and it remains oddly thrilling for some of its duration despite its confusing, globe-trotting narrative. The film, though, feels like it was spliced together with no care for the actual material, despite the hacker narrative feeling not only timely but necessary and vital to understanding our ever-changing world. So why, then, is the film such a slog and difficult to follow? I enjoyed the film walking out if only because I found it fun and zippy, yet looking back it feels like a bunch of hobbled ideas cut up, then taped together sloppily. The casting is also off-putting, considering the Chinese actors are often incomprehensible in English or dubbed in other scenes, making the sound of the film structurally (pardon the pun) unsound and the production feel overly calculated for a worldwide success.
The film follows Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), an extremely talented hacker who has been imprisoned for the past few years as part of a 15-year sentence for a serious offense in hacking banks. The U.S. government, though, along with cooperation from Chinese officials, determine that they need him because his code that was built during his college years has been modified and used in cyberthreats. A nuclear explosion in China has threatened and killed lives after a pump was technologically manipulated to blow. Those cyber hackers are talented and ruthless, and largely faceless for most of the film; their plan is kept under wraps until the film’s final act. Hathaway teams up with his old buddy Chen (Leehom Wang) and his sister Lien (Wei Tang), with the latter starting to have a fling with Nick. Cooperation comes from Carol Barrett (Viola Davis), an FBI agent that doesn’t necessarily trust Nick, but knows he is needed. The results are a story that navigates virtually the entire globe and follows a cyber trail that is mostly confusing and unnecessarily shrouded in close-up shots and fluffy dialogue.
Blackhat isn’t a bad film because it actually has something on its mind that feels socially cognizant and relevant. That’s vital for mainstream films in our cinematic landscape, so it’s a shame that the writer of the film, Morgan Davis Foehl, doesn’t know how to make that narrative cohesive. It feels as if ideas were put on a cork board and then connected by string as an afterthought, without care for how much sense they make. When they can’t connect, tonally bad elements like a random character trait surrounding 9/11 feel oddly offensive and out-of-place. Michael Mann is talented when he creates compelling characters in new landscapes (Collateral and Heat come to mind first), so naturally a hacking narrative with strong antiheroes should be intriguing. Unfortunately, though, as I distance myself more and more from the film, I find glaring plot holes that signify a lack of care behind the actual product. The aforementioned technical faults, particularly in sound, make the film overwhelmingly difficult to follow. Blackhat has enjoyable components that will please people looking for an innovative thriller, but it won’t leave them thinking about much else.
Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)