Blackhat Dir. Michael Mann

[Universal Pictures; 2015]

Styles: cyberthriller, ambient philosophical rumination
Others: Miami Vice, Demonlover, 2046, Friday Night

The opening shot of Blackhat is of an Earth encased by physical manifestations of data: a white bubble that seems both solid and gaseous, like the view of a city’s light grid from the sky that Stuart Dryburgh’s camera bores in on before the film’s inciting cyberattack. There, information on instruments monitoring a Hong Kong nuclear plant travels through a system of cables, routers, chips, and increasingly microscopic streams of information, to the home of an anonymous villain. Without looking at a screen — oddly, without a screen in sight — the villain hits “Enter” on a keyboard, and a new, bigger digital stream travels back to the plant. A cooling fan malfunctions, and the reactor explodes. One menacing keystroke yields an institutional catastrophe.

Michael Mann’s films have been hugely concerned with the transmission of information. The director has a fetish for technology — a trip through his canon is a historical timeline of cellular innovations and evolving forensic techniques — and a sense for the peculiarities of data. His taciturn, Kantian heroes are professionals: men of certainty thrust into final jobs wherein data and institutional knowledge cease to correlate with certitude. Networks of nefarious threats (surveillance cameras, men in suits, bullets in mailboxes) loom over these protagonists, who must resort to hunches and corporeal force in order to escape danger and find peace. Peace, in these films, is an escape from the flow of information, ideally near frame-swallowing seashores and the tones of a romantic synth score.

A preoccupation with isolation and serenity is a tactile element of Mann’s crime films, from Manhunter to Heat, and it seems like a complicating feature of his recent work in digital cinema, if the palpably disinterested audiences I twice sat through Blackhat with are any indication. The film is 2015’s first major studio flop, and its first major studio masterpiece. Its hero is Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), a storied hacker released from jail to assist a joint American-Chinese task force. Hathaway and his former MIT roommate (and current Chinese military lieutenant) Chen Dawai (Asian pop star Leehom Wang) authored the code that enabled the attack. Chen’s sister, Lien Chen (Wei Tang), and a trio of FBI agents (Viola Davis, John Ortiz, and Holt McCallany, all gruff and excellent) round out the posse hopscotching both globe and information networks in search of the cybercriminals, who amass a huge amount of funds in another attack, this one on the market for commodities futures.

From its early journey into the infinitesimal of digital data, Blackhat gives a novel physical dimension to Mann’s ongoing concern with technology and surveillance. Simultaneously, his interest in abstract, sensual expressionism — on display most prominently in Miami Vice — has metastasized. Blackhat’s romance is largely silent, fated to a point where it scans as perfunctory; dozens of strange and dazzling images of Wei and Hemsworth in physical contact are cancerous to the film’s narrative momentum, but they’re essential to its philosophy. The lovers, and these shots of them together, wouldn’t be out place in a film by Wong Kar-Wai or Claire Denis: they’re cosmically entwined but opaque, as boy detached from world meets girl instantly happy to escape it with him. I have a testy relationship with Mann’s way with actors, relationships, and dramaturgy -—The Insider, which benefits from an extraordinary script, is the only film of his that satisfies on all accounts — but find this pairing (and this film) almost perfectly strange. Mann never tires of exploring their bodies or heightening their isolation, in tight focus (Hemsworth’s hand grazing Wei’s curved leg) or in wider compositions (shot of the year: the two wake up in a safe house, and billboards of an eye and a watch peer in through adjacent windows). After their first night together, Hemsworth’s wardrobe of expensive, wrinkled linen shirts are only buttoned below the chest, and his cleavage becomes a supporting character.

These erotic languors are interrupted by an elaborate cat-and-mouse game with a couple of Eastern European villains and a handful of spectacular set pieces, where Mann finds new ways to play with digital technology. A shootout among a maze of shipping containers offers sporadic shots with the fidelity and fixed position of a GoPro, hermetic images that contrast with fluid, high-definition establishing shots. After a car bombing, captured in a slow motion that makes metal look like plastic, Drybergh’s camera is blissfully untethered, reacting to gunfire and following Hemsworth and Wei through Hong Kong’s subway system. Most insane is Blackhat’s ultimate showdown, a “low-tech” fight set in the thick of a religious worship ceremony in Jakarta: a stream of men in red robes carrying torches walk in one direction, and Hemsworth and his enemies go against the tide. The worshippers are captured at a pace that looks like a motion-smoothing glitch, and the stream is disbanded. Flames are replaced by sparks of gunfire, red robes by bloodshed. The scene is at once wildly culturally insensitive and an indelible visual metaphor for Mann’s hero, reduced to brute force to escape the networked world and go find a new one. This is one theme among many recycled from Mann’s previous work — among Blackhat’s other oddities, pivotal lines of dialogue here are cribbed from Manhunter and The Insider — but this film’s freewheeling and totalizing engagement with contemporary technology feels more like a revolution than simple evolution.

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