Most hacker movies derive their thrill from the fact that many things in life are simply beyond our control. Just as Godzilla stomping through Tokyo makes everyone who risks being crushed underfoot feel helpless, so does the fact that the world is irrevocably united through the internet of things and that there is no longer a safe way to simply remain private and hidden from society. Like it or not, we are all interconnected.
As technology advances year by year, we increasingly become aware that our every move is being tracked and recorded—sometimes by government officials who might not have our best interests in mind, and sometimes by independent hackers who definitely don’t have our best interests in mind.
Here is a list of notable hacking movies throughout the years, all of which hinge on the terror that comes from knowing your life can be destroyed with one simple line of code.
This late-60s British comedy caper was filmed long before the Internet existed and before the term “hacking” referred to anything computer-related. Michael Caine stars as an ex-con who devises a plan to steal $4 million in gold from the Italian city of Turin by recruiting a computer professor who replaces the magnetic tape data storage reels in the city’s traffic-control system with a program designed to cause a chaotic traffic jam and ensure a safe escape for the gold thieves into Switzerland.
Jeff Bridges stars as an arcade owner, video-game software composer, and computer hacker who suddenly finds his physical body digitized and sent into an all-digital computer environment where he is a “player” who must survive the rigors of gaming in order to track down the man who stole his game-playing software and is making millions from it. Roger Ebert called the film “a technological sound-and-light show that is sensational and brainy, stylish, and fun….’Tron’ leaves any narrative or visual universe we have ever seen before in a movie and charts its own rather wonderful path.”
Toying around with his primitive home computer, a young man accidentally finds a back door into a US government military computer and almost starts World War III by mistake when he challenges the computer to play a game he calls “Global Thermonuclear Warfare.” Roger Ebert called the film “an amazingly entertaining thriller…one of the best films so far this year.”
Starting in 1969, a renegade group of computer programmers seek to find a way to divert political funds intended for conservative causes into more progressive-oriented bank accounts. In the end, the “Sneakers” were successful—they channeled money intended for the Republican National Committee toward Greenpeace, Amnesty International, and the United Negro College Fund. This comedy caper stars Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, Ben Kingsley, and River Phoenix.
Sandra Bullock stars as a hermetic computer programmer who accidentally finds herself in the midst of a deadly conspiracy by cybercriminals. People around her start dying at precisely the same time she realizes to her horror that her entire past and identity have been erased from the internet. SF Gate called the film “a strong enough suspense thriller, a high-tech version of one of those spiraling nightmares in which an innocent person is chased by assassins and wanted by the police.”
A group of misfit high-school hackers who give themselves colorful handles such as “The Phantom Phreak,” “Cereal Killer,” “Acid Burn,” and “Crash Override” suddenly find themselves entangled in an elaborate corporate-extortion conspiracy that draws the attention of the US Secret Service. Unless the unknown extortionists receive a $25 million payout, a computer virus they’ve inserted into a corporate mainframe will sink five major oil tankers. The film draws inspiration from the Hacker Manifesto; going so far as to have skeptical Secret Service agents on a stake-out read aloud from it: “This is our world now… the world of the electron and the switch […] We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias… and you call us criminals. […] Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity.”
Unlike most Hollywood movies—which are created in Hollywood by Hollywood types—Hackers emerged organically as a response to a burgeoning subculture in the 1980s and early 1990s. One of the people who was consulted during the writing of the screenplay was Mark Abene, whose hacker handle was “Phiber Optik.” He said the subplot about sinking oil tankers was inspired by the sinking of the Exxon Valdez in 1989. When Rafael Moreu was brought on to write the screenplay, he began hanging out with Abene and other hackers who had made a ritual of meeting every week at the atrium outside Manhattan’s Citicorp Center.
One challenge for the filmmakers was the fact that, at the time, hacking was considered the purview of nerds. But for neophyte hackers, they considered themselves a high-tech version of the hippies who flouted convention, sought absolute freedom, and attempted to destroy power at its very foundations.
The multiracial cast was meant to reflect the cutting-edge hipness of this original New York hacking collective. Two actors who were unknown at the time—Angelina Jolie and Jonny Lee Miller—were hired as leads after producers witnessed an audition tape between the two that radiated sexual heat. So good was their chemistry that few of those in the cast were surprised that Jolie and Miller were married shortly after filming ended.
Unfortunately, the studio was hesitant to release this film and waited until three other Interet-themed movies—Johnny Mnemonic, The Net, and Virtuosity—were released, which killed the uniqueness and timeliness of Hackers.
The film performed poorly at the box office but in retrospect has gained the status as a prescient cult classic.
In this Danish-language cyberpunk thriller originally released with the title Skyggen (The Shadow), a hacker known as JB worms his way all the way into the Stoiser domain, the most powerful domain in the world. But instead of seeking to punish JB, the domain’s proprietor elevates him to the role of site webmaster. Rink Works severely panned the film: “the movie is a downright bore. The main character is a blur, not even defined enough to qualify as a stereotype or caricature. The villain is uninteresting. None of the story makes any sense. I can’t take enough stars away to do this movie justice.”
The overarching theme of this comedy by master satirist Mike Judge is the soul-crushing environment of late-1990s office life. In order to exact revenge against their smarmy and condescending masters at a software company called Initech, three software engineers devise a code that will gradually divert fractions of pennies from the company into their own private account in such tiny increments that no one at the office will notice. However, the code was sloppily written, and the hackers realize to their horror that they’ve withdrawn $300,000 in only a few days.
Keanu Reeves stars as Neo, who works as a software developer during the day and moonlights as a hacker at night. A beautiful stranger entices Neo into an underworld where it is revealed that everything he knows about “reality” is actually an elaborate ruse set up by the powers that be. Roger Ebert called the film “‘a visually dazzling cyberadventure, full of kinetic excitement….It’s great-looking, both in its design and in the kinetic energy that powers it. It uses flawlessly integrated special effects and animation to visualize regions of cyberspace.”
A counter-terrorism unit known as Black Cell needs money to help finance their war against international terrorism. They bring in a convicted hacker (Hugh Jackman) to help find them the funds to finish the job. Halle Berry is recruited to use her female charms to entice the hacker into working for anti-terrorism mastermind Gabriel Shear (John Travolta). When he proves capable of hacking into a government website in under one minute while a gun is held to his head, Jackman is offered $10 million to help Gabriel Shear.
In one of the grisliest and darkest hacker movies ever, an FBI agent named Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) is assigned to hunt down a sick serial killer who murders people online and racks up more clicks with each successive murder. Problem is, the killer has rendered himself untraceable, but he has no problem tracing Detective March. Roger Ebert called the film “a horrifying thriller, smart and tightly told, and merciless….’Untraceable’ is made with intelligence and skill. It dramatizes the sorts of things that the anonymity of the Internet makes possible, or even encourages.”
Jerry (Shia LaBeouf) and Rachel (Michelle Monaghan) are two strangers who are suddenly united by the fact that they are both receiving phone calls from an unfamiliar woman who begins threatening their lives and family while claiming she possesses the technological prowess to track their every move. Roger Ebert gave the film a firm thumbs-down: “The word preposterous is too moderate to describe ‘Eagle Eye.’ This film contains not a single plausible moment after the opening sequence, and that’s borderline. It’s not an assault on intelligence. It’s an assault on consciousness.”
This made-for-TV Australian film centers around the early hacking career of Julian Assange (Alex Wiliams) during the 1980s and early 1990s. In 1989, Assange teamed up with two other hackers and called his group the “International Subversives.” They deftly avoided police in Melbourne, who at the time were almost entirely unfamiliar with personal computers, much less how to hack into them.
In yet another drama based on the real-life story of Julian Assange, Benedict Cumberbatch portrays the Wikileaks founder as his organization became the world’s most renowned hacking entity, divulging secrets about Scientology, Sarah Palin, and the British National Party. Much of the film’s tension is based on the gradual drifting apart between Assange and his partner Daniel Bruhl, who sometimes questions whether Assange’s motives are as pure as he claims. The split between Assange and Bruhl becomes irreparable after Wikileaks’ infamous release of Bradley Manning’s trove of US diplomatic cables.
Written and directed by Oliver Stone, Snowden is a biographical film detailing the life story of Edward Snowden, who was disqualified from military service due to a mild physical impairment but due to his computer skills received a lucrative job with the CIA. In 2013, Snowden gained international fame—and went into permanent exile—after releasing classified information about the National Security Administration’s terrifying powers of surveillance over the American public.
On a road trip from Massachusetts to California, three MIT students find themselves targeted by a mysterious computer genius. The hacker is known as NOMAD and begins taunting the trio with increasingly hostile emails. Then, after everything goes dark, the character known as “Nic” wakes up in what seems to be an underground government research facility with a strange number tattooed on his arm. He also gradually learns to his horror that his legs have been replaced with robotic legs. In the end, he learns that what he thought was an underground government research facility is actually a giant spaceship that is permanently relocating him to another planet.
This is the only documentary on the list. It focuses on the real-life stories of three “hacktivists” who wage war against corporations and the US government: Andrew “weev” Auernheimer, Barrett Brown, and Jeremy “Anarchaos” Hammond. In the film, journalist Glenn Greenwald explains why he believes hacktivism is ethical: “What the Anonymous collective and Hammond’s hacks revealed and Barrett Brown publicized is so criminal that it must be exposed no matter what the means. The US Government will go to any lengths, including the suspension of the rule of law, to stop them.”
An escaped convict who’d been jailed for hacking teams up with American and Chinese officials and accepts a suspended sentence in exchange for helping them solve the case of an international cybercrime ring whose hacking skills cause nuclear coolant pumps to explode in China and the Chicago stock exchange to be subverted. The film was a box-office failure, raking in less than $20 million against a budget of $70 million.
Alex Danyliuk (Callan McAuliffe) stars as a working-class Ukrainian teen who taught himself to use a computer during a youth spent in Canada where his immigrant father was unemployed and his mother kept things together with a job at a local bank. But once that bank fires his mother and endangers his own financial future, Alex threatens to use his hacking skills to bring down the entire banking system.
In this sequel to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Claire Foy stars as Lisbeth Salander, a renegade hacker who does battle with a powerful underground organization known as the Spiders, who are on a blind quest for world dominance. She soon learns that her archenemy in the Spiders is a woman who faked her own suicide in order to escape physical and sexual abuse and now seeks revenge against the entire world.
In this sequel to 2014’s Unfriended, a teen decides to pick up an unclaimed laptop from a local coffee shop’s Lost and Found. In group chats with other friends, they all realize to their horror that they’ve been targeted and tracked by an anonymous collective of sadistic hackers known as the Circle, who intend to kill them all slowly one by one.
More Hacker Movies
- Bellman & True (1987) in this British blackmail film, a brilliant computer programmer is forced by gangsters to hack into a bank and perform a heist.
- Mission: Impossible (1996) starring Tom Cruise led to sequels and a successful action franchise, making it the 16th-highest-grossing film series of all time.
- Takedown (2000) is based on the real-life manhunt for a computer hacker named Kevin Mitnick. Mitnick was the target of a high-profile FBI arrest which landed him in prison for five years.
- Live Free or Die Hard (2007) Bruce Willis terrorizes a new-wave hacker with old-school techniques.
- The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2010) is a cult psychological thriller about a hacker (Rooney Mara) and journalist (Daniel Craig) who team up to investigate a mysterious 40-year old unsolved murder.
- Goodbye World (2013) in this end-of-the-world movie, a cyberattack takes down the United States and a family has to live in apocalyptic time deep in rural California.
- Open Windows (2014) is a found-footage thriller about an actress (Sasha Grey) who is being watched through her computer screen by her biggest fan (Elijah Wood).
- The Internet’s Own Boy (2014) tells the biographical story of Aaron Swartz, a Stanford alumni who was arrested and charged with two counts of wire fraud and eleven violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
- Blackhat (2015) features Chris Hemsworth and Viola Davis in a story about a computer criminal released from prison to help track down a deadly hacker.
- Jason Bourne (2016) marks the fifth installment in the Bourne film series, starring Matt Damon as a former CIA assassin who is being chased down by the head of CIA cyber-security.
- Ghost In The Shell (2017) is a sci-fi action film based on the Japanese manga about a cyborg super-soldier, played by Scarlett Johansson.