Perhaps when a director signs on for a certified “cyberthriller,” they become contractually obliged to deliver one of those “inner workings” CGI sequences that lost their appeal shortly after David Fincher sent us hurtling through the brain’s neural network in Fight Club’s opening minutes. If that is, in fact, the case, then Michael Mann tends to this compulsory element as quickly as possible in Blackhat.
We’ve spent but seconds inside a Hong Kong nuclear reactor before we’re secreted inside the facility’s mainframe, gliding over its circuitry as it’s compromised by a shadowy hacker’s malware. And while the artificiality of this increasingly corrupted copper, solder and silicon topography seems an affront to the realism to which Mann typically aspires, it does speak to the intricacy and precision that he so evidently admires about illicit enterprises. Be it the meticulous safecracking in Thief or the stopwatch-synchronized heists of Heat, the director has routinely demonstrated that he’s only intrigued by those criminals who’ve elevated themselves to craftsmen. Mann’s fascination with such figures persists in Blackhat, but his own work now proves more experimental and expressionistic than exacting, resulting in the rare procedural that hinges on mood rather than story mechanics.
The antihero on offer here is Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), a hacker imprisoned for electronically pilfering a small fortune from banks. Just as he’s eager to assure us that he targeted institutions rather than individuals, he likewise takes pains to assert, “I’m doing the time, the time’s not doing me,” which is one of many lines in Morgan Davis Foehl’s script that’s not quite as clever as it fancies itself. However, the underlying notion of a convict using his cell as a cocoon in which physical and intellectual transformation might be realized is one that obviously appeals to Mann, who’s always fancied an adaptable protagonist. (It also offers a convenient rationale for why a rogue code monkey is built like a Norse god.)
When a disastrous meltdown at the aforementioned hacked reactor is followed by another cyber assault on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange that instigates a spike in the price of soy futures, two things become plainly evident. The first is that the FBI—represented by Viola Davis’s Carol Barrett—and Chinese intelligence—headed by Leehom Wang’s Chen—must pool their resources and spring Hathaway from prison in order to identify and eliminate the unseen assailant. The second being that Mann no longer possesses (or no longer seems interested in flexing) the virtuosity required to make this onerous setup any more involving than the “Getting Started” tutorial for a new printer.
As the investigation progresses, Mann continues to treat the script’s plot points as obligations rather than sources of inspiration. For example, little interest is shown in rendering an ill-conceived romantic subplot featuring Wei Tang as anything more than a flimsy excuse to intermittently get Hemsworth out of those pesky shirts. Instead, Mann’s energies are primarily devoted to exploring the stylistic possibilities presented by Hathaway’s globe-drifting (“hopping” would indicate more invigoration than the dreamlike film ever manages). As fascinated with harnessing light as the early humans were, Mann sees the skylines of Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Jakarta as fluorescent palettes with which to indulge his aesthetic whims.
Consequently, Blackhat primarily fascinates with its flourishes, be it the reflections that dance about during a prolonged firefight or the sight of Hathaway swimming against the tide of a parade procession as he tracks an adversary. Working in league with cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh and exploring the full capabilities of digital visuals, Mann conjures a hallucinatory cinematic realm that’s sensual and perilous in equal measure.
As the action escalates—and is ultimately, brutally resolved through resoundingly low-tech means—there’s nothing in the way of catharsis or closure. Instead, the anxiety instilled in earlier passages only abates enough to allow a strain of melancholy to creep in. Given that Mann acknowledged the impending death of film well before his peers, perhaps it’s only fitting that Blackhat should refuse to even suggest that the status quo can possibly be restored. There’s a grim fatalism to this supposed thriller as it plants in a viewer the unsettling sense that it’s really only a matter of time before technology proves our undoing. Hathaway may have saved this particular day but his meagre reward is permission to hole up somewhere quiet and await the end of the world as we know it. When it unceremoniously arrives, it won’t be ushered in with a bang, but with a keystroke.
Director: Michael Mann
Writer: Morgan Davis Foehl
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Wei Tang, Leehom Wang, Viola Davis, Ritchie Coster, Holt McCallany, John Ortiz, Yorick van Wageningen
Release Date: Jan. 16th, 2015
Curtis Woloschuk is a member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle, as well as Publications Editor and a programmer for the Vancouver International Film Festival. You can follow him on Twitter.