One of the finest American movies of the decade so far.
Michael Mann’s last three films, Miami Vice, Public Enemies and Blackhat (which, to some, constitute a closely linked trilogy), each set an idealistic individual opposition to a vast network of enemies who harness the powers of technology and mass capital, still idealistically clinging to their romantic – yet outdated – ideals, despite being vigorously zeroed in on by omnipresent forces beyond their control. Mann’s societies are built on rigid streams of information which aim to transform individuals into mere cogs for no other purpose than its own self-perpetuation, and anyone who attempts to break these systems is perceived as an anomaly that can easily be removed by the state. Uninterested in the notion of heroes and villains in the conventional sense, Mann’s late films instead portray characters that are so ensnared within elaborate technocratic systems (some catch criminals, some re-direct virtual funds) that keep them in a state of Heideggerian alienation that they’re unable to think about their endgames in terms of morality.
Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), the protagonist of Blackhat, is a genius hacker gone rogue, and thus the Mann hero with the greatest mobility within his environment. Whereas Public Enemies charted the death of the Western individualist vigilante in an era where privacy no longer exists, Blackhat suggests that such a figure can be resurrected, though their existence must be precarious and short-lived. Hathaway operates within the system in order to manipulate it to suit his own ends. The film bears all the characteristics of Mann’s digital work but pushes them to newfound extremes. Dialogue is clipped and truncated; plot and character exposition is kept to a minimum; the action is shot almost entirely with natural and available light, with the resulting colours being graded in post-production to appear hyper-real and impressionistic; archetypal situations are filmed with a rare emotional weight and attention to the minutiae of body language, making them feel immediate and unfamiliar; scenes are composed in fleeting, richly textured high-definition compositions that usually track a little to the side and rapidly alternate between extremely deep and extremely shallow focus; performances are deliberately dreamy and narcotized; haptic sensations are foregrounded over narrative details.
Hathaway is serving a sentence in a maximum security prison, obsessively devoting his time to perfecting his body and his mind in equal measure, when he’s recruited by a government task force fronted by his former friend Chen Dawai following a cyber-terrorist attack on a nuclear reactor. Complaints that the dude who played Thor doesn’t exactly look like the average computer whiz were inevitable, but Mann is smart enough to make Hathaway’s addiction to exercise a vital part of his character – it lets him channel his anxieties into a productive activity while also giving him a way to avoid thinking about the problems in his life. One of Mann’s defining qualities is his interest in taking stock pulp characters, particularly that of the stoic male professional, and detailing them realistically instead of romantically, marking the isolation and emotional pain that must come with such a mind-set. The terrorist, it’s revealed, used a slightly altered version of a code written by Hathaway in the past. Hackers manipulate abstract binary code in order to create effects on tangible reality, events which immediately get transformed into more binary code, which can then be manipulated to form a response.
Mann’s films tend to transform urban spaces into mythic grids of straight lines and sharp angles – think of the architectural wide framing of Heat, or the surveillance-dominated interiors of Miami Vice – but here, unusually, his camera draws attention to the intoxicating abstractions and intangibilities that lie within these rigid, man-made forms. Frames are often dominated by glass and reflective metal, smearing the cityscape’s glaring advertisements and neon signs into makeshift abstract expressionist paintings. At other times the low focal length transforms background information into washes of digital noise. Blackhat was shot with 5 different DV cameras of varying quality, some of them consumer grade (at times, Mann even treats the pictorial imperfections of the apparatus as abrasive aesthetic flourishes), and the collage-like results look more like a Godard movie than something you’d usually find in the multiplex. Within this globalised hive, violence registers with an extremely visceral force (Mann can still capture shoot-outs better than any living director, with the possible exception of Johnnie To), bursts of tactility that puncture a landscape built on immaterial exchanges. And so it’s through physical combat that Hathaway is briefly able to achieve his goal of freeing himself from the network.
Blackhat (2015), directed by Michael Mann, is released in the UK on DVD and Blu-Ray by Universal Pictures, Certificate 15.