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What Does a Hacker Look Like?

From Neo to ‘Mr. Robot,’ a field guide to hacker style

USA
USA

What does a hacker look like? Who is a hacker? Even in 2016, it’s a question one might reasonably ask. Much of this could stem from the fact that — as far as visuals go — our first association with the word “hacker” isn’t a “who” at all; it’s a computer. Sure, we know there’s a person sitting behind the machine. (When I think “hacker,” my first thought is “Sandra Bullock in The Net” — and she wasn’t even a hacker! She was just a nice systems analyst who enjoyed ordering pizza online.) But as far as the genuine, physical manifestation of what a “hacker” amounts to? Most of us are in the dark.

Which makes the portrayal of hacker culture in TV and film all the more fascinating — and formative: we are watching the creation of the visual definition of something happen in real time. And it’s why the richness of Mr. Robot’s character portrayals, on an aesthetic level, can often be such a thrill. “What does a hacker look like?” The show answers this question by turning it into a much more accessible one: “What do these hackers look like?”

Mr. Robot — now into its second season — has become a high-profile member of a very particular lineage: the handful of movies and TV shows that have tried to author a signature version of “hackers.” The results … have … varied. But here, for better and for worse, are some of our all-time favorites. This is Hacker Aesthetics 101 — the road to hoodies, paved with good intentions:

‘Hackers’ (1995)

United Artists
United Artists

Hackers is a classic hacking two-hander, starring Jonny Lee Miller — 22, looking 32, playing 18 — as Dade, and Angelina Jolie — Angelina Jolie, looking Angelina Jolie, playing Angelina Jolie — as Kate. To say their aesthetic is “very ’90s” would be like saying the ’90s were “very ’90s.” Kate: Pixie haircut; backpack (two straps, hung low); heavy pink eyeshadow; black skull-and-crossbones T-shirt, under a sheer-ish white sleeveless shirt, tucked and belted into high-waist pants. Dade: Blond hair of ambiguous authenticity; a vest over a colored T; cargo pants, backpack (held inexplicably in front of himself); and (if you thought I wasn’t going to say “rollerblades,” what were you thinking) rollerblades. They are basically dressed as sentient OG Real World audition tapes. What I’m trying to say is that, at one point in the movie, Dade does Robert De Niro’s “You talkin to me?” bit from Taxi Driver — WITH FLOPPY DISKS FOR GUNS.

This is hacking aesthetics as “sure, why not,” and the shoe fits narratively as well. Hackers isn’t Mr. Robot; it isn’t a story where anyone wants to save the world. Rather, it’s a movie about a bunch of people entering a new world, for the first time — and then figuring out what in the hell that new world even means. For a hacker in 1995, nothing — from pigtails to P6 chips (“triple the speed of the Pentium”) — is worth saving yet. Everything is just a thought experiment.

Essential hacking stats:

Hacking M.O.: Flirting; sport; revenge.

Key hack: A sexual tension–infused “hack-off” between Kate and Dade.

Inspirational hacking quote: “It’s too much machine for you.”

‘Enemy of the State’ (1998)

Touchstone Pictures
Touchstone Pictures

I think it’s well past time that we said this — shared this — out loud, and together, and without reservation: Early Jack Black was a treasure.

In Enemy of the State, he gives one of the film’s best performances: playing an NSA agent who used to be a hacker. Or at least that’s what I assume he used to be. You can almost imagine Black’s Fiedler having literally been in the clique from Hackers just a few years earlier. And from there, it’s easy to fill in the blanks: maybe he got caught, or he got spooked, or he got bored … but whatever the reason, he decided to switch sides.

His clothes tell this story: slacker, but not too slacker. Someone with ideology on their sleeve — but with a dope flight jacket over that sleeve. Someone with everything, goofily, under control. Someone who decided to switch sides.

Essential hacking stats:

Hacking M.O.: Fulfilling government employment contract; climbing the stairmaster of Jon Voight’s approval.

Key hack: Will Smith’s life.

Inspirational hacking quote: “This is the security camera at the underwear store.”

‘The Matrix’ (1999)

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

The Matrix is mostly famous for what comes next: slimy body harvest, dodging bullets, awful trench coats, Hugo Weaving’s perseverance, making out with Carrie-Anne Moss in the rain. But in the first act of the first movie, when Neo is still Just A Guy, The Matrix also offers some interesting hacker cues.

Neo’s hacking uniform is pretty pre-millennium basic: plain black T, oversized headphones, jeans, bedhead, and whatever the face equivalent of bedhead is. When Neo goes to the hacker bar at night, he throws on a black zipper jacket — maybe Banana Republic? — and when he goes to work the next day, he carries himself with strong (bordering on very strong) “I fuck shit up online on the weekends, what are you going to do about it” vibes.

Within a half-hour, it’s all over: Neo takes the red pill and we’re off and running. But The Matrix’s prologue isn’t throwaway, aesthetically or otherwise — and all things considered Keanu plays this stage of Neo just right: as a highly competent loner, with a sense of … “purpose” might be too strong, but maybe “purpose-in-waiting.” Even in these quiet moments, there is a sense of things to come.

Essential hacking stats:

Hacking M.O.: Preempting the dawn of a machine-fascistic slave state.

Key hack: The Matrix.

Inspirational hacking quote: “Whoa.”

‘Swordfish’ (2001)

Village Roadshow Pictures
Village Roadshow Pictures

Ah, Swordfish. The legacy of Swordfish — other than being John Travolta’s hotness nadir — is threefold: (1) the studio paying Halle Berry an extra half-million dollars to do topless nudity (that link goes to a picture of a young John Travolta); (2) a too-bad-to-be-true action climax involving an airlifted bus (that link goes to a picture of an airlifted bus); and (3) Hugh Jackman hacking into the DOD mainframe in 60 seconds with a gun to his head while he’s getting a blowjob from a stranger in the VIP section of an undisclosed nightclub as John Travolta watches (that link goes to a picture of a young John Travolta).

Living up (or down) to his third-place ranking, Jackman’s hacker aesthetic — as reluctant criminal / “I just want my daughter back”–purveyor / eventual hero Stanley Jobson — is a bit haphazard. And yet an enduring trope is established: the Rock Star Hacker. Here is an FBI agent describing Jobson: “WIRED Magazine’s 1996 Man of the Year. Pretty much a burnout now, but he was the hacker zeitgeist of his day.” Swordfish terribly and desperately wants you to know: Just because Jobson is a genius hacker, that doesn’t mean he’s — they wouldn’t even want me typing this — a nerd. He’s not a hacker; he’s a cool hacker.

Jobson maintains a few aesthetic staples throughout the film: blond highlights (not Hugh Jackman’s best hair movie) (not his worst), a mini-hoop earring in one ear, scruff (I told you he was cool), and a frown. Otherwise, he shuffles between three main looks — roughly one for each act. Act 1: purple “Free & Easy” T-shirt, relaxed-fit jeans, leather jacket. Act 2: a blue button-down (this is to signal that he is “living the good life” now — which, if you’ve ever worn a blue button-down, you know is true). Act 3: a terrible baggy suit with a terrible striped tie. 2001! You were silly but you were loved.

Essential hacking stats:

Hacking M.O.: Bankrolling custody battle for daughter.

Key hack: DOD mainframe.

Inspirational hacking quote: “If I even touch a computer I go straight back to Leavenworth. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.”

‘Live Free or Die Hard’ (2007)

20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

Finally, something a little more civilized. Timothy Olyphant’s hacker villain (sorry, “cyber terrorist”) Thomas Gabriel is nothing if not professional chic: expensive black shirt (tucked in, two buttons unbuttoned), expensive black watch, expensive black belt, expensive black pants, calm demeanor, tender demands. What I respect most about Olyphant’s Gabriel is that he doesn’t feel the need to be so … “look at me, I’m in a basement” about it. He employs his own personal hacking team (they probably get full benefits), and works out of his own personal, deluxe-equipped (if a little icily decorated) hacking headquarters. He has a healthy hacking relationship with a lovely hacking girlfriend (played by Maggie Q). He even delivers his hacking threats to national security over the phone — like a hacking gentleman. I mean, it’s just nice. To paraphrase Don Cheadle in Ocean’s 11, Thomas Gabriel is a “proper villain.” As hacker aesthetics go, it’s a breath of fresh air.

Essential hacking stats:

Hacking M.O.: Destroying the American economy; proving a point.

Key hack: NORAD.

Inspirational hacking quote: “You’re a Timex watch in a digital age.”

‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ (2011)

Sony
Sony

Jet black hair, brutalist bangs, hoodie under spiked leather jacket, shaved brows, pierced brow, pierced ears, pierced nostril, pierced septum, pierced lip, pierced nipple, razorblade necklace, ratty muscle shirt, oversized T-shirt that says “fuck you, you fucking fuck,” full eye-black, lingering cigarette, absolute adherence to motorcycle helmet-safety laws, and a crush on Daniel Craig: As Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s (unconvincing proof that he’s used a computer before) The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Rooney Mara achieves the hacking performance holy grail: I wouldn’t want her around my computer. To me, Mara’s Lisbeth is the current leader for greatest hacker aesthetic of all time.

Essential hacking stats:

Hacking M.O.: Earning a living.

Key hack: Daniel Craig’s computer.

Inspirational hacking quote: “And stop visiting tattoo-removal websites, or I’ll do it again.”

‘Blackhat’ (2015)

Legendary Pictures
Legendary Pictures

“What do we know about him?”

“Genius. MIT. Best hacker alive. He’s the only one for the job.”

[CUT TO THOR DOING DIAGONAL PUSH-UPS IN A PRISON CELL.]

Essential hacking stats:

Hacking M.O.: Staying out of prison.

Key hack: NSA.

Inspirational hacking quote:lksad ksdfa kjsfadj bkfasd bjksklafsdkjl saadsnmx adskl knlafds adsnf zvcfd.”

‘Mr. Robot’ (2015–)

USA
USA

While no single Mr. Robot character approaches the aesthetic heights of Lisbeth Salander, as an ensemble the show ends up conveying something nearly as inspired. How many movies can match Mr. Robot in its sheer number of characters whose looks might qualify as “iconic”? There’s Elliot, of course, whose wardrobe now feels like a discrete character almost unto itself. There’s Mr. Robot in his mess of hats, and flannels, and increasingly sexy glasses situation, and scarves. There’s the sterile menace of Tyrell’s suits. There’s literally everything Darlene has ever worn.

And it all works. Much like Hackers was dressing for the unknown in 1995, Mr. Robot in 2016 is dressing for the finally and deeply known. What’s known? At times it feels like almost everything: every identity, every location, every meaning, secret, receipt. Mr. Robot is a show about what we do in the face of that knowledge — and amid the version of alienation that seems destined to come with it.

Fortunately, like any good cinema, its answer on its own is an aesthetic:

Sometimes we have to put on a mask. And then other times we throw on a hoodie.

Essential hacking stats:

Hacking M.O.: Saving the world.

Key hack: E Corp.

Inspirational hacking quote: “People always find a way to disappoint.”