by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday January 14, 2015

Chris Hemsworth stars in 'Blackhat'
Chris Hemsworth stars in 'Blackhat'  (Source:Universal Pictures)

The timing couldn't be better for a film about cyber terrorism. Everyone is still reeling over the Sony hacking and, lately, the news is bubbling over with potential cyber threats from ISIS. It's like 1979 all over again when "The China Syndrome" was released before the Three Mile Island accident (and it was ironically dubbed science fiction-until two weeks later when it was suddenly seen as prescient). The two main differences between "Blackhat" and the Jane Fonda/Jack Lemmon movie is that "The China Syndrome" was ahead of the headlines. Oh, and, "The China Syndrome" was actually good.

I am an admirer of director Michael Mann's oeuvre. In particular, 1999's "The Insider" was biting, timely and perceptive. But in "Blackhat," working with a ponderous, preposterous and paint-by-numbers screenplay (by Morgan Davis Foehl and Mann, himself), Mann is just repeating his own overdone frenetic style and engrossing, but distancing, dazzle. The results are initially interesting but grow tiresome and frustratingly incoherent as the film slowly inches to its downright dumb climax.

The film begins with a five-minute CGI sequence (with grids and light-saber-like glow movements) intended to give us a glimpse inside a computer as code digitally flows until it's stopped dead in its tracks. I'll be honest, it reminded me of "Tron."

We then learn that a Chinese nuclear power plant's mainframe has been hacked and a meltdown ensues (and is where I was initially reminded of "The China Syndrome"). Enter Chinese superhacker and MIT-grad Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang, very good) and his sister Lien Chen (Wei Tang, delivering one unintelligible line of dialogue after another).

Mercifully, Viola Davis soon turns up as an FBI special agent, working with the Chinese, investigating the incident. Chen will only help "liaise" if his former hack-buddy, computer-genius-who-looks-more-like-a-male-model Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), is released from prison. Apparently Hathaway is the original architect of the RAT (Remote Access Tool), a mutation of which caused the disaster.

The timing couldn't be better for a film about cyber terrorism. "Blackhat" is initially interesting but grows tiresome and frustratingly incoherent as it slowly inches to its downright dumb climax.

Hathaway is let out and, from there, the film broods, lumbers and violates most of its audiences' senses while simultaneously acting as an Ambien tablet -- not an easy task to accomplish. Imagine feeling like you're being bludgeoned with a brick and woozy-sleepy at the same time.

When the film finally explains who was behind the attack, "Blackhat" has completely devolved into a banal and predictable thriller with the prerequisite mano-a-mano battle that Hollywood Execs seem to think will bring in the little boy audience. Doesn't matter that it makes no sense in a film that purports to be about cyber geniuses.

Chris Hemsworth, showing he's more than a pretty face and sick body in Ron Howard's "Rush," does his best here, but ends up lost in the murky mess. Sure, he and Mann are trying to make geeky look sexy, but it stretches believability that Hathaway's working out in prison has enabled him to develop so much brawn to go along with all that brain power. Hemsworth does have tremendous charisma, but the lack of chemistry in his scenes with Tang makes the entire romance portion feel completely superfluous. Cuts here would have greatly benefitted the overlong film.

Viola Davis is the only one who manages a real performance despite the absurd script. She's such a unique and beguiling actress, she is able to gift her character with so much inner life. It's a damn shame her fate is so utterly trivialized.

Mann and his digital cinematographer, Stuart Dryburgh, makes each new exciting location from L.A. to Hong Kong to Jakarta, seem like the same turbid, shadowy back alley. They seem to be under the delusion that mood and atmosphere will somehow make up for the film's lack of depth and believability.


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Frank J. Avella is a film journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep and a Member of the New York Film Critics Online. Frank is a recipient of the International Writers Residency in Assisi, Italy, a Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, and a NJ State Arts Council Fellowship. His short film, FIG JAM, has shown in Festivals worldwide ( and won awards. His screenplays (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW) have also won numerous awards in 16 countries. He is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild.