As a movie buff AND a professional hacker, I love the opportunity to combine my passions, so I have decided to review the best hacker movies of all time and give you my best 12 list. In recent years, Hollywood has caught the hacker bug and now nearly ever crime or adventure movie has a hacker in it making this task all the more enjoyable and difficult.
The good news is that not all of Hollywood's depictions of hackers are negative, despite the overwhelming perception by the general population that our profession is a malicious one.
In trying to determine the twelve best hacker movies, I tried to only use those films where people are actually entering into other peoples' or organizations' computers for good or ill. Very often, reviewers of this genre include any movie with computer "stuff" as a "hacker movie". In my definition of a hacker movie, someone must be using advanced skills to access someone else's computer, without their consent or knowledge, for good or ill.
In addition, I evaluated the movies based upon plot, acting, directing and, most importantly, how they portrayed hackers. They got extra points if they portrayed the hackers as the "good guys," have female hackers in opposition to the male geek archetype, and even more points if the hacking represents something close to reality.
One final note before I begin. This list is ONLY for movies, not TV shows. If Mr. Robot were a movie, I can assure you it would be at VERY the top of my list.
Takedown (also known as Trackdown) is a B-grade movie—a fictionalized and sensationalized account of the tracking and capture of probably the most infamous U.S. hacker, Kevin Mitnick. Based upon the book written by Mitnick's nemesis, Tsutomu Shimomura, the story tends to glorify Shimomura. Mitnick operated in the 1980s and '90s and eventually went to prison for a couple of years. Now, he is a highly paid IT security consultant, speaker, and writer.
This movie has low production values, despite having some relatively well-known actors (Skeet Ulrich, Tom Berenger, and Amanda Peet, among others). Don't expect to learn much hacking from this movie, though, as nearly the entire 1 hour and 36 minutes is a story about tracking down Kevin Mitnick as the FBI and Shimomura search for him across the states.
#11 Furious 7
The story line of Furious 7 (the seventh of the"Furious" series)revolves around the acquisition of a hacking system known as "God's Eye" that is capable of finding and tracking anyone in real time. Both the U.S. spy agencies and an adversarial spy agency (it's not clear who the adversary is, but the location is "beyond the Caucasus mountains," which could imply Russia?) desperately want their hands on this system.
God's Eye was developed by a gorgeous female hacker named Ramsey (talk about breaking hacker stereotypes!), who was played by the beautiful Nathalie Emmanuel, which many of you may remember from Games of Thrones. This tool could be used by these spy agencies to find anyone, anywhere, by tapping into every cell phone and surveillance camera.
Although much of the action in this movie is a bit hokie (jumping cars between skyscrapers, etc), I really like the concept of the God's Eye. Many experts have chimed in that it is not possible, but I disagree. You can read my article on "How I Would Build God's Eye of Furious 7" here.
#10 Italian Job
Although the MINI Coopers are really the stars of "The Italian Job" (a remake of the 1969 film of the same name), Seth Green plays Lyle, a hacker among a group of elite thieves, who is able to manipulate traffic signals, among other devices, that make this grand theft possible. Could this hacker have been using Shodan to identify and assist in hacking these devices?
Although not true to the detail, it does portray hacking with some realism. I really like the concept that ALL digital devices are susceptible to hacking, not just computer systems.
#9 Black Hat
A couple years ago, a new hacker movie was released, appropriately named Blackhat starring Chris Hemsworth (from "Thor" fame) as a blackhat hacker who is released from prison to stop a notorious and destructive hacker that only he can stop.
Although the movie did very poorly at the box office, I thought it was pretty good movie, as hacker movies go. In particular, the hacking was relatively authentic. One of my pet peeves about hacker movies is that Hollywood always makes hacking seem so fast and simple with lots of swirling, animated, geometric shapes. Brute-forcing passwords takes seconds instead of hours, days, or weeks. In Blackhat, we get a more realistic depiction of hacking... maybe that's why it failed at the box office?
Interestingly, the hack is almost eerily identical to the Stuxnet worm that the NSA perpetrated against Iran's uranium enrichment facility. Specifically, it attacked the PLCs of the nuke plant's cooling system causing it to overheat, meltdown, and release radiation.
Throughout the movie, the character portrayed by Chris Hemsworth employs command line hacking techniques that reflect the real world of hacking (Chris Hemsworth must be the most attractive person to use a command line).
It's finally nice to see hacking portrayed realistically by Hollywood, but unfortunately, few people saw it. If you have a couple of hours and are interested seeing a moderately good movie with some of the most authentic hacking scenes Hollywood has ever produced, check out Blackhat.
#8 Fifth Estate
The Fifth Estate is an unauthorized account of Julian Assange (I'm sure Julian would never approve this account of his life) and WikiLeaks. Benedict Cumberbatch plays a believable Assange as a egotistical, idealist that is out to change the world. Few Americans know that Assange is a famous (or infamous) hacker in his native Australia. As a teenager, he broke into the Pentagon, Citibank, NASA, and Stanford University, among other facilities, before being caught.
WikiLeaks was founded to provide a safe place for whistle blowers to make secret state information available to the world when that information reveals the ill deeds of powerful governments. They were responsible for the leaks regarding U.S. military abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Hillary Clinton emails of the 2016 Presidential Election in the U.S.
Although little hacking takes place in this movie, it is an important film for the hacker community as it depicts how hacking is changing the history of the world.
#7 Ghost in the Shell
"Ghost in the Shell" is a classic, Japanese anime film that depicts a future (probably mid-21st century) where humans are part flesh and blood and part bionic. Many people have cyber brains that are part electronic and part grey matter. This cyber brain enhances their cognitive abilities and allows them to plug into larger networks. This is an intriguing concept that is likely to become reality in the very near future (Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla, is actively working on a project to do just that).
The story is about a special operations task force that is part-police and part-military. The lead character is female officer whose body was destroyed as young girl and has been replaced by a beautiful bionic body ("Ghost"=her mind "in the Shell"=her bionic body). The hacking in this futuristic tale is the most malicious variety of hacking, the hacking of the human mind.
This year, Paramount Picture and DreamWorks teamed up to remake of this classic Japanese anime, but with real actors. It stars Scarlett Johanssen made up to look vaguely Japanese and wearing a flesh colored body suit. If you prefer your bionic people to be played by real actors rather than Japanese anime, you may prefer this remake, but watch the original first.
In Sneakers, Robert Redford and Ben Kingsley portray two young hackers whose lives take two different directions after their playful college hacking leads to the arrest of Kingsley's character. They meet again some thirty years later when one (Kingsley) is working for the bad guys and the other (Redford) isn't sure who he's working for when he's forced to comply upon threat of his true identity being revealed.
The plot revolves around a new encryption algorithm that would make electronic communication secure. The NSA plays the bad guys who want the encryption algorithm so that they can spy on everyone. The movie was way ahead of its time in that respect.
#4 Die Hard:Live Free and Die
The fourth installment in the Die Hard series, "Live Free or Die Hard", depicts a scenario where a hacker played by Timothy Olyphant (of "Justified" fame) takes down nearly the entire U.S. infrastructure in an attempt to transfer trillions of dollars from the Federal Reserve to his own account.
As I believe this type of SCADA infrastructure hack is one of the most important issues in national security, it gets kudos from me. Watching Bruce Willis ride outside of a Harrier Jump Jet to take down the bad guys is simply laughable, though. Another notable moment in this movie is the portrayal by Justin Long as the good-guy hacker employed by Willis' cop character to assist in stopping the bad guys. You probably remember him from the iconic "Mac vs. PC" ads.
#3 Girl with a Dragon Tattoo
Noomi Rapace portrays The Girl with with Dragon Tattoo (I prefer the original Swedish version to the Hollywood version) superbly. She is a young woman, recently released from prison for a crime of passion in her youth. She has been traumatized by the corrections and probation system and is probably showing signs of mild autism. As a way of earning an income, she works as hacker-for-hire for a private investigator. This leads her into the path of Mikael, a middle-aged investigative writer who is being unfairly persecuted by a diabolical wealthy industrialist.
Her hacking is critical to revealing the identity of the true evil-doer. Although the hacking is oversimplified, it is far more realistic than most films, even if she is using a Mac. She works from a command line terminal and there are scenes showing the Unix/Linux file structure.
#2 War Games
This classic 1983 hacker move WarGames depicts a young, teenage, bedroom hacker played by Matthew Broderick who almost starts World War III. By war-dialing, he is able to get unencumbered access to the Department of Defense's nuclear missile launch controls.
The hacker is portrayed as a playful--rather than malicious-- and knowledgeable teenager who inadvertently hacks into critical DoD systems.
In Hackers, Angelina Jolie and Johnny Lee Miller (they were married after the making of this movie) portray two youthful and hip hackers. Miller (now of the Sherlock Holmes TV spinoff, Elementary) portrays a hacker who got caught as a very young child (11) after crashing thousands of computers and has been sentenced to zero computer access until his 18th birthday.
The hacking is relatively realistic, although a bit dated. The film was made in 1993, but the technology looks to be mid- to late-1980s. It gets points for portraying hackers as the good guys (thwarting the plans of the evil corporation) and as hip, rather than nerds.
What do think? Did I miss any great hacking flicks?