Thursday, January 15, 2015

“Blackhat” – Disappointed for all the wrong reasons.

Have you ever felt simultaneously pleased and disappointed in a movie? Have you ever felt those two things for the exact same reason? That’s what Blackhat did to me. Unless you are a secret agent or an athlete, chances are pretty good that your profession is very rarely, if ever, depicted in a movie. When I was a kid, baseball was my life, so I watched just about every baseball movie released (I promise I’m going somewhere with this). I could never understand why the actors playing pitchers (my position) almost always looked as if they were taught how to pitch by a cockroach humping a sock puppet. Tony Danza (Angels in the Outfield), Chelcie Ross (Major League), and Thomas Ian Nicholas (Rookie of the Year) – among others – not only insulted baseball, but insulted actors by not bothering to even attempt to learn how to actually pitch. I always thought their punishment should have been to hand-wash a minor league team’s jock straps for a month, but that was before we had Internet polls. Twenty years later, I’m not a professional baseball player (frowny-face), but I am a cyber-security professional. When I found out someone made a movie called Blackhat, and after watching the preview, I was salivating at the prospect of a movie that was sure to do as much disservice to my profession as Danza did to baseball.

It’s easy to understand why I was expecting this movie to be idiotic in regards to cyber-security. For one thing, the last twenty years are littered with movies and television shows featuring hackers or computer experts and most of them are hilariously bad from a technical standpoint (yes, I’m a nerd – get over it). That’s not to say that some of them weren’t entertaining or good, just that if you know anything about computers (i.e. know the difference between a keyboard and a monitor), those movies become comedies.

For another thing, the preview all but guarantees that the movie will be technically moronic. The premise appears to be that hackers have taken over a nuclear reactor and that only a blackhat hacker can stop them. One character even explicitly states “we need a blackhat hacker,” which is the line that convinced me this movie would be dumb. A blackhat hacker is a hacker who commits crimes; why wouldn’t they need a whitehat hacker (a hacker who does not commit crimes)? On top of that, we see Chris Hemsworth running around shooting people and having sex with some hot chick. I promise you, this is almost the exact opposite of what a blackhat hacker would be. To my surprise, not only is that absurd blackhat line not in the actual film, but the film turns out not to be a technical dumbass. And, that premise isn’t even the actual premise.

The actual premise is hackers have attacked a Chinese nuclear reactor, the New York stock exchange, and more attacks are sure to follow. The Chinese and American governments form a team to identify and catch the hacker. The team is comprised of FBI Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis), Chinese Captain and MIT graduate Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), network engineer/Chen’s sister Lien (Wei Tang), and some other agents that are definitely going to die when the shooting starts. After the first two attacks take place, Chen sees the malicious computer code used for the attacks and immediately recognizes it code that he co-wrote while at MIT. Guess which hammer wielding Avenger was the co-author and Chen’s roommate at MIT?

Nicholas Hathaway (Hemsworth) is the blackhat hacker – who, incidentally, is never once referred to as such during the film – and is in prison for his crimes. Chen insists that Hathaway is vital to the investigation due to his familiarity with the code and became pleased that Michael Mann (director/writer) came up with a logical reason for needing Hathaway rather than just that stupid preview line. The rest of the film is the team following the digital breadcrumbs until they finally figure out what the hacker’s true goal and identity are.

As pleased as I was that the preview was complete bullshit, I was very disappointed that the movie didn’t go cyber-stupid on us. They actually did an admirable job portraying the digital forensics investigation, even to the point of showing us screenshots of command line interfaces and actual commands on computer screens. While I’m no expert UNIX administrator, I recognized much of what we saw and they weren’t just typing nonsense on the screen. What impressed me most was, as far as the hacking part of the movie, they do a lot of social engineering, which is definitely the most effective hacking technique for gaining entry into systems (and places for that matter) rather than just putting some guy at computer who can hack any system with a few keystrokes. The only truly ridiculous part was when Hathaway tricks an NSA senior agent into clicking on an attachment in an email to change his password and Hathaway convincing agent Barrett that the NSA won’t notice. You might be able to trick some secretary at a law firm into doing that, but not an NSA agent (if we’ve learned anything about the NSA in the past year and a half it’s that they would have known Hathaway’s intentions before Hathaway did). But, hey, they just included a phishing attack, which alone makes this movie smarter than most.

I’m sorry if I’ve bored you a little bit, but the reason I’ve spent so much time talking about the technical details is because the movie was so boring that the tech details were more interesting than the movie itself. With a running time of 133 minutes, this movie is easily a half an hour too long. The action scenes are very few and far between and the downtime in between just isn’t engaging for non-technical wienies and it takes almost two hours before the hacker’s motivation is finally revealed. Since the first two attacks take place in the first ten minutes of the movie, that’s nearly two hours of time for the audience to wonder when the movie is going to get to the point. And, when the reveal finally does happen, it’s a huge letdown because the stock exchange hack makes the final hack redundant.

For all the time spent on the investigation, almost no time is devoted to character development. Chen and Wei have no apparent sibling bond at all and their relation to each other only becomes relevant after Chen discovers that Hathaway is sleeping with Wei. On that note, Wei’s only job in this movie is to provide Hathaway with some sex and make him rethink his criminal past. Even though she’s supposed to be the network expert, I’m not sure she even touches a keyboard until the last ten minutes of the film. Agent Barrett is given even less to do as Davis is relegated to making scowly faces and phone calls. And just to make sure everybody got the short end of the script, the villain isn’t heard or seen from until the last five minutes of the film, with the exception of a couple of short instant messages with Hathaway. If his character is ever even named in the movie, I missed it.

All of that is the long way of saying that this movie was a disappointment because it wasn’t even close to the preposterous crap that I was hoping for. Instead of being an idiotic and nonsensical, but entertaining action flick like Lucy, it ended up being a boring slog of a movie that was more interested in lines of code than entertainment. But if we learned anything it’s to never, ever, click on strange e-mail attachments.

Rating: Ask for nine dollars back and hope Hollywood leaves your profession alone.

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