Michael Mann’s cinematography conveys a dark and turbulent world with a murky morality and a stylish sensibility; his characters are melancholy and never quite comfortable in the world they inhabit. Everything is done with a straight face, especially the snippets of world-weary exposition the characters deliver to each other. What this style obscures is that ultimately the complex world he purports to represent always breaks down into a primal battle between an exemplary force for good and a villain whose evil is over-determined and under-rationalised. In this version of his Manichean fantasy, the scale is escalated to rival the scale of any super villain you’d care to name, with the opening gambit being the destruction of a Nuclear power station and the end-point being the destruction of tin mining and hence crippling the world’s supply of electronics. Mann’s cinematography tries to disguise this as high art, so it is not quite ridiculous, but it is not far at all from the kind of histrionic action that James Bond would participate in.
In Blackhat his protagonist is a hacker who ran afoul of the law but retains both a superb musculature and cutting-edge knowledge of electronics behind bars. His antagonist is a criminal mastermind who uses some tricky software to attack vulnerable computer systems for straightforward material gain. The problem is the same as with almost all such techno-thrillers, that the purported plan is basically less efficient and far more dangerous than it needs to be. In Blackhat, the tin-mining caper has a huge pay-off, but as the characters themselves point out, a long-term use of this software could go undetected forever with ultimately far greater returns. Simple greed seems insufficient as an explanation – maybe I just myself don’t think big enough.
Probably more interesting than anything that happens in the film is its geo-politics. I get the sense that we are now in a post-Wikileaks world in terms of the basic anxieties that films like this could exercise and exorcise. We feel vulnerable to digital interference and attack, and a Bethamite digital Panopticon. Instead of that human scale, this film uses that network architecture in the same sort of way as Die Hard 4.0, as a vector for attacking established and settled interests. Weirdly, films like Enemy of the State have disappeared in favour of what is essentially more of a concern for corporate interests than the general population. This might suggest a return to a fictional model lifted from the Cold War, of ideological conflict such as capitalism versus communism, but none of that is present here. There is idle talk about the rivalry between China and the USA, but in the vector of attack and the formation of a combined response, these two sides are united. The enemy is a lone-wolf corporate raider. In Blackhat, the ideological questions are settled – the modern corporate capitalist consensus that is our true global culture is not challenged.
We are left with a film that really lacks any real moral dimension, or sophisticated moral perspective. For a film touting its credentials in its name, that is disappointing. Consequently for me, I found relatively little to inspire tension in the drama. The one-dimensional characters were hard to care for, and their conflict was far too black and white.
I gave it 6/10 on the IMDB, because it was solidly made, if nowhere near as clever or ambivalent as it thinks it is.