Michael Mann’s Blackhat

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Computer technologies, digital networks and interfaces, and mobile communications tend to intensify physical presence by paradoxically putting new emphasis on bodily knowing, communications, and tactile information.
—Brandon LaBelle, Background Noise

Michael Mann has finally made a film about idealist individuals. Or at least a film about those who break the patterns of the streams they live in, as opposed to accept the inexplicable systems that form their societies. Clouds form abstract shapes above cities, where rigid and jagged materials form distinct lines. Even the streets of Hong Kong and its endless bazaars simply look like a grid from above. There is complex theory and there is chaos theory. Mann knows the world is the former, but he can’t help but shoot his camera up toward the latter—searching the heavens for freedom.

Blackhat is Mann’s first feature film since 2009’s Public Enemies, which was a film about a rebel in a world where systems of organization were developed into making him simply an anomaly to be targeted and erased. The protagonist of Blackhat, Chris Hemsworth’s Hathaway, has yet to be erased, but now simply acts as another cog in a guarded system—he’s a hacker doing time in prisons, spending his days reading up on Foucault. He knows that simply because he’s surrounded by walls doesn’t mean the outside world is anything but a prison without them. When he first steps out onto the runway of an airport, he can only see material of grays and blacks, out of focus and without dimension. It’s simply a mass.

Then a hand grabs his arm, and everything becomes tangibly real.

That hand belongs to Lien (Tang Wei), a female engineer who happens to be the sister of Hathaway’s partner in a global hacker investigation, Dawai. On paper, there’s nothing that remotely should bring these two together beyond the conventions of Hollywood storytelling. But cinema isn’t a tale of what’s, but how’s. That hand is the first of many tactile surfaces that bring these bodies together. Mann uses cinematic sight to represent touch, making each haptic surface contain a felt presence by simply being captured by his camera. Each of Hemsworth’s little unshaven stubs. Tang’s hair, each strand flowing in the wind. The feel of their skin being held by each other means they tangible exist together in a world where planes of space are dissolving.

There is a sense in Blackhat that the digital world has collapsed time and space—when Lien and Hathaway must escape at one point, there is an ad for a wristwatch literally looming behind them in the window—but if you can have a tangible body, then you have something to hold. “She’s never been this happy,” Dawai tells Hathaway. But what happens when that material is no longer there? If Hathaway is simply part of the network, his corporeal self is a program waiting to be erased.

Blackhat begins in Beyond Jupiter, a CGI created environment of a grid only imagined as the flow of light. And it’s a film about how intangible material, only imagined through computer screens, becomes real (a password is captured as a series of handstrokes). There is a haunting immediacy through the digital cinematography developed by Mann and his DP Stuart Dryburgh. Often shot in what appears like high-frame rate or motion smoothing, the action in Blackhat has a surreal feeling: alien in its untraditional cinematic look, while all too authentic in the feeling that each gesture belongs to the here and now. Physical violence appears smeared through its velocity; explosions of fire are slowed to a stop to capture those infinite seconds before material turns to chaos. And simply look at the blood pouring out at one moment: it has a silver sheen to the dark hues. This isn’t the movie world. It’s as real as that feeling of when a knife moves into a body. It’s there. It happened.

But movie worlds are so key to Mann’s way of making movies. His characters are archetypes, though often without much in the way of backstories or exposition. Conversations are fueled by exposition and plot development, yet chopped at the moment they become unnecessary. Narrative conventions are necessary evils—questionable setups in order to achieve something lyrical, as real as the escape Hathaway plans.

Blackhat’s villains are seemingly generic, but in many ways simply anonymous. They have the wants that define classic movie conventions (money, power), but their ultimate goals remain undescribed, a sense of digital currency, powers outside of the perspective of the protagonists. There are always “bigger politics” as the good guys seemingly phrase it, but there are moments of personal, quiet devastation, like a character recalling 9/11 before staring at a building in the sky at the moment of death.

So there is a price to pay, because touching photos as you swipe through a phone isn’t the same as touching a body. So while narrative remains generic, violence becomes real. Blackhatters flow with the system in order to exploit it; Hathaway flows against the lights of a Jakarta festival, no longer working in the world he helped to create. In the end, he must touch his enemy—a knife, twelve times into the stomach—in order to bring some justice. Not total justice, and not total freedom. A surveillance screen still catches their movements after all.

And yet these bodies are together, moving as one. They are no longer cogs in a mass, but clouds moving into a white sky.

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