ME?! Let the 25th anniversary of the best floppy disk chunky laptop love story being released into cinemas go by unremarked?! GOOD GRIEF!
It’s been twenty five years since Cereal Killer, Lord Nikon and some other characters rollerbladed into our hearts through our landlines. In that time Angelina Jolie has become the biggest movie star on Earth while Johnny Lee Miller has solved crime in New York and got a pretty respectable professional Muay Thai record. Meanwhile, Renoly Santiago, Laurence Mason and Jesse Bradford have become the kind of character actor that are always the best part of whatever they’re guesting in and Matthew Lillard remains one of the most distinctive and glorious talents of his generation, often appearing in movies which deserve his presence.
But what about the characters? Well, that’s where I come in.
Behold my fever dream return of Zero Cool! Acid Burn! The Phantom Phreak! Lord Nikon! Cereal Killer! and …Joey! All of them them twenty-five years older, none of them twenty-five years wiser.
All of them needing to do one thing…
We open with Zero and Acid. They’re no longer together as a couple but still tight as friends and colleagues. They’re electronic community organizers now, producing tools and social media strategies to raise disadvantaged voices. They’re also not above the odd bit of … direct action every now and then. Acid still carries her flare pistol, Zero’s got a few years of Thai Boxing under his belt (Miller has never had a decent fight scene and bless him he deserves one). They’re aging punks, still disreputable enough to get in just enough trouble to be fun and to exercise their privileged to avoid the worst consequences.
That changes when the phone rings.
Cut to West End Avenue: the last four payphones in New York. Our leads are continuing their well-worn ‘who won the bet’ argument when the first phone rings. They’re citizen journalists now, they know the drill. Acid picks the phone up, a wipe in one hand so she leaves no prints. Zero films, pushing simultaneously to a secure cloud.
It’s The Plague.
He monologues — because of course he does — about how he’s done his time, he’s a good citizen now and that means? He can finally CRUSH them. Acid mocks him and he loses it, screams at her that she never knew her place and he will SHOW HER WHERE THAT IS.
‘On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.’
She looks up, hand on the glass, as Zero is tackled by the flashmob of agents in navy windbreakers.
Smash cut to Santa Cruz, California. Lord Nikon and Cereal, happily married, run a small consultancy firm from a customized, ecologically sourced ranch house on one of the bluffs. Nikon invented Napster. Cereal accidentally built Reddit. They were angel investors in YouTube. It’s a good time, a comfortable life and like Zero and Acid, they spend their time helping the international hacker community. In Cereal’s case, that includes some exuberant and staggeringly badly planned ecological direct actions.
The package on the doorstep rings as soon as it’s put down. If Nikon had opened the door he’d have been cautious, but that wasn’t the plan. The plan was for Cereal — big, kind, trusting Cereal — to be the one to take the call.
The Plague speaks. ‘Anywhere you go. There I am.’
Cereal looks up, panic on his face. A dozen Federal Marshal vehicles are barrelling down his driveway. —–
The Phreak has gone all the way legit. With Joey as his eternal intern, Ramόn teaches at their old high school. Computer science, the good stuff. His partner teaches history. They eat lunch together every day and the kids think they’re adorable.
It’s less adorable when Phreak’s arrested in the middle of a lesson. Terrorism manuals on his laptop, the dark web on his phone. The Plague on his voicemail, laughing and laughing and laughing and Joey, eyes wide with terror, hands cuffed, right behind him.
Domestic terrorism. Incitement to riot, Public order offences. Trafficking in passwords. Communication Interference. Hacking Space Force. Each and every one of them is handed a string of charges they can’t possibly have committed, or beat. They’re informed they made bail, all of them, which seems… odd.
Waiting for each of them is this guy.
Special Agent Richard Gill got punked live on air twenty five years ago. Now he’s got the upper hand.
He collects the team, one by one, brings them all to an off-the-books New York office. A senior director of the Secret Service, Pierce has painstakingly taught himself cybersecurity and assembled a unit dedicated to fighting black hat cyber crime.
And this is the point where everyone’s ears prick up. Because Gill, the Man, finally has a clear glimpse of their world. What hacking truly means, and what happens when someone does it for malicious reasons. He lays it all out for them:
- The Plague is back. Twenty five years ago he wanted 25 million dollars to not capsize some oil tankers. Now? he wants 25 billion to not crash and compromise every secure government system.
- They ask about how that can even be possible. Gill tells them it’s a classified piece of technology (he calls it ‘The Box’) that he’d been told had been destroyed decades ago. Cereal mutters ‘Too many secrets, man.’ Gill looks at him VERY oddly.
- Plague wants them dead and Gill only barely got to them all before Plague. The charges are a ghost, a reason to keep them in custody. But if they fail, he’ll have to make the charges stick.
- He needs Plague traced and stopped. He’s chosen them for the job not because they were the best (Acid points out they still are) but because they’re the only people who beat Plague. They’re the only ones who PISSED him off. Gill needs them to do that again.
- They’ve got 48 hours before Plague makes his move. Gill’s trying to pin down what it is but everything he’s found says somewhere in New York.
Our dysfunctional little Hack family get back together and catch up over beer and pizza in the Secret Service canteen. Phreak, who will NOT stand for this food, hacks into Gill’s account and orders them the very best on the government’s dime. Cereal tries very hard to search for info about the UFOs he’s convinced they keep in the basement.
Nikon reads everything he can about The Plague, committing it all to memory. Plague has been busy: rehabilitated his image as an ‘internet free speech advocate’, popular libertarian podcast guest, close ties to big business. This, they realize, is going to be difficult.
But Nikon has the in. Hackers are like bombmakers — sentimental. A shell company bought out the Ellingson Mineral Building, one that can be traced all the way back to the Plague. The building’s rented out (Plague’s evil, not stupid) but there’s a lot of power being drawn to the top level. Officially, it’s where the cooling racks for the building servers are. A ruse so thin even Joey sees through it. Unofficially? Looks like The Plague’s HQ.
Gill confirms their suspicions, admitting that the ‘box’ Plague acquired is lightly radioactive to aid in tracing it, and that trace elements of that radioactivity are all over the building. Cereal is EXTREMELY grossed out by this.
They construct an elaborate, elegant heist. Cereal uses his Reddit powers to whip up a social media storm, enough of a distraction for Phreak to hack the phone servers. From there, Zero and Acid hijack the building’s cameras and put together the entry plan. There are disguises. There is rollerblading. The whole time, Zero and Acid are getting closer again. There’s probably a montage.
They make their move. It works. And The Plague is waiting.
Yes he IS a scumbag, freely admits it. The money to be made as a reactionary pundit in 2020 is AMAZING. But hacking?! He smirks, offering his old enemies a drink, saying ‘That’s a young man’s game. Or it should be. Isn’t that right, Joey?’
The group turns to watch Joey, eyes blazing with hate, give them the finger and, The Box in hand, leaves. The doors close behind him as Plague smiles, locks eyes with them and makes a phone call.
‘Hello? I’d like to report a break in. Yes, it’s the hackers from the news. Please help me!’ He hangs up, smiles. ‘This is where you run. Can you dig it? CAN YOU DIG IT?! CAN YOU DIG IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIT?!’ and laughs maniacally as they sprint from the room.
A fight EXTREMELY ensues. The hackers keep moving, using their best rollerblading and parkour tricks to escape the high rise. Zero DEFINITELY gets to throw Muay Thai kicks.
They reach the street and are met by Gill. He fakes arresting them (Nikon has to be reassured it’s a fake arrest several times) and passes the group the intel they need: the Plague’s first target is going to be New York air traffic control. The NYPD roll up and Gill lets them go, putting himself between the cops and working the news crews right behind them.
They’re alone. They’re wanted for every digital crime in the books. They have to both stop and save a friend, and they have no idea where they’re going.
Except, Nikon and Phreak do. Using Nikon’s memory, Phreak’s phone skills and Acid’s top of the line (of course) tablet they discover Joey’s cell phone pinged the same tower every Thursday for eight weeks. Phreak remembers Joey talked about teaching underprivileged kids in his spare time and traces where the ‘classes’ took place. A rented room in One Times Square. They race to it, making calls along the way, and find the massive building deserted aside from the top floor. Cereal, gasping a little by this point, suggests he stay behind to guard their backs.
They arrive a couple of minutes behind Joey and find him poised over the Box. The room is full of far right imagery and a top of the line streaming set-up. He’s rehearsing his manifesto. Zero begs him not to do it and Joey cooks OFF. He screams at them all for never taking him seriously, for never giving him his cool hacker name. He sneers as he talks about their business ventures and how they all sold out. Only he stayed true to the hacker code! He was going to save them! He was going to show them the true way! The Plague is on a wall sized screen behind him, egging him on, as Joey is convinced he’s about to ‘Go Durden’ and hack the banks instead of ATC.
Suddenly The Plague arrives! In the flesh, NYPD in tow! Now Joey has three groups of people yelling at him, all making different demands. He starts sobbing, freaking out.
And Nikon steps forward. Nikon lists every good thing Joey ever did, every kindness, every smart play. He tells Joey the story of himself, not the man Plague and his years of incel-baiting alt-right grifting want him to be. ‘You’re Joey, man. JOEY. You got your cool name already.’ Suddenly looking like the lost, frightened little boy he is, Joey drops The Box and collapses into Nikon’s arms.
Which is when Plague starts laughing, turns to Zero and says: ‘Hey! HEY! Tell me you’re going to stop me.’
Zero blinks. ‘We’re going to stop you.’
‘HOW?!’ He gets right in Zero’s face. ‘I DID IT THIRTY FIVE MINUTES AGO!’
Zero smiles. ‘So did we. Cereal?’
Cereal appears on the wall of screens behind Joey. ‘Hack the planet?’
As one the team screams ‘HACK THE PLANET!’
Cereal of course copies it. And sends a copy to a friend in Portland. But that’s another story.
Cereal has broadcast portions of the data dump on every network they passed on their race through the city. Every dirty little secret, every financial back door, every classified file. Even without them, the simple act of copying The Box’s code is an admission of Plague’s guilt. With them? Plague’s going back to jail.
Only this time, Joey’s going too. They could cancel Joey’s record but… he’d know what he did. So would they all.
It’s Zero who thinks of it first; Joey who says it out loud. If he’s going away anyway, why not do some good? Nikon nods ‘My mentor used to say all he wanted was peace on Earth and good will towards men… and women.’ He adds hurriedly ‘everyone.’ He squeezes Cereal’s hand, who has newly arrived from downstairs. Acid looks up at Joey.
‘You sure about this?’ Joey wipes his nose and grins. ‘You met me at a very strange time in my life.’
He pushes the button on The Box.
Central Park. Nikon and Cereal are playing chess. Zero, Acid and Phreak are drinking coffee and chatting. Phreak holds a newspaper, Plague’s arrest below the fold. Above it, a headline screams ALL STUDENT AND MEDICAL DEBT ERASED!
Gill arrives, thanks them for their service and confirms their pardons. Nikon reads his over several times as Gil asks what they’re going to do next. Zero and Acid are going right back to work, the chemistry between them tipping away from platonic. Phreak is going to pick up the slack with the kids Joey was supposedly working with. Nikon and Cereal? Long holiday.
Gill takes all this in and smiles. Turning to leave, he says ‘Be sure to leave your contact details with my assistant.’ Cereal asks if they’re going to be working together again and Gill laughs. ‘Maybe. Either way I want to be able reach you. Joseph?’
Joey, hair cut, shades on, looking like a scale model of a Man in Black falls in next to him. The others gape as Joey lowers his shades, grins and mouths ‘It’s me!’ Cereal, Nikon and Phreak pepper him with questions as Zero and Acid head out. But not before maybe making a stop off at the nearest rooftop pool…
Roll end credits! See you in another twenty five when Nikon and Cereal have become a sentient cloud of nano-machines! And I figure out how to give Razor and Blade cameos!
Hackers is 25 years old, GLORIOUS, and available now digitally and on blur-ray. There’s a three volume soundtrack! Volume 1 you all know and love. Volumes 2 and 3 are HILARIOUSLY only available on physical media! A 25th Anniversary edition releases next week! INCLUDING VINYL!