Blackhat (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Blackhat (2015)

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Nicholas Hathaway is a computer programmer serving hard time for tech crimes.  When a program he helped write is used as a platform for terrorist attacks he is taken out of prison to find those responsible.  Will he be successful in destroying his own creation, or has it evolved into something he can no longer control?  Michael Mann directs and cowrote the script for Blackhat with Morgan Davis Foehl, and stars Chris Hemsworth, Tang Wei, and Viola Davis.

Disappear into our new cultureStarting with Ali in 2001, Michael Mann has taken a "kill your darlings" approach to directing.  He made a big name for himself as a master stylist in the '80s and continued that with a string of hits in the '90s, but the new millennium has him restlessly tinkering with digital filming.  The deep color palette is still present but muted in a nightmarish blur where muzzle flash creates cracks in the visual framework while the soundtrack pummels the audience into paying attention.  They haven't been always easy to watch, and in the case of something like the Miami Vice remake they can be borderline incoherent in the editing, but those films seem to be the last bastion of his older cinematic craft.

With Blackhat, it becomes rapidly clear that Mann is no longer interested in cohesion of plot inasmuch as he is using film as a synesthetic experience.  It makes Blackhat bewildering to watch sometimes, and there are other flaws which don't create a great cinematic experience, but when Blackhat works I am gripped like no other.  If Michael Bay has used the template of the action film to relentlessly mock and at times punish their intended audience, then Mann has become a director who uses action as a means of abstracting our present moment of terror and surveillance.  Much like the hero of Blackhat has to fight to destroy something he created, Mann is rebelling against his high style by making his vision abstract and sometimes painful to follow.

Surveillance and violence blend in the false security of strong geometric shapes amidst a shifting backdrop of violence.

Combatants take comfort in the false security of strong geometric shapes amidst a shifting backdrop of violence.

It's this abstraction of current events which gives Blackhat most of its power and makes it a surprisingly good companion piece to Citizenfour.  For those unfamiliar, Citizenfour was a documentary about the NSA leaks which briefly put Edward Snowden into the national consciousness.  Citizenfour is wracked with paranoia against an unseen but constantly felt malevolence, and Blackhat's approach is to document how futile the struggle is when the enemy can be lost in the abstract.

Mann provides quiet instruction on how much the dialogue should be paid attention to in the opening scene.  Language is lost entirely as a signal goes from the macro global broadcasting level to the micro.  The soundtrack squeals painfully and when we can finally make out language it's not one Americans will recognize.  The camera zooms deeper into electronic realms which make little sense to our eyes and ears.  When we finally hear English it's spoken in such a muffled way that they might as well be saying gibberish.  All this is Mann's way of saying that traditional notions of communication will do little good in this realm of electronic sabotage and Blackhat's visual style will follow suit.

This comes as a surprising relief during some of Blackhat's worst moments.  Computer programmer extraordinaire Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) gets saddled into a romantic relationship with Chen Lein (Tang Wei).  On the one hand, it's a complete cliché to shovel sex scenes into an action movie, but it's a cliché Mann is aware of and tinkers with.  Just when the dialogue is about to get into Hathaway's past it becomes indistinct from the background noise.  It's another way of showing his story is just one of many, and in the global scheme of things will fade in like the rest.  But even with this intriguing tinkering of the cliché it remains just that, and is all at once interesting and disposable.

Blackhat shows how far Mann has come from the broad daylight warfare of his '90s days.  Even when he's working with the sun Mann finds a way to have the guns flash against darkness in a way which resembles black glass being repeatedly shattered.  The human figures creating these designs are lost in a nightmare of their own where geometric shapes provide cover but conceal how the landscape is always shifting in a hostile manner.  Mann is at the top of his game during these moments, and the result is remarkable.

Those who are already convince Hemsworth possess little acting talent will remain so after seeing him in Blackhat.

Those who are already convinced Hemsworth possesses little acting talent will remain so after seeing him in Blackhat.

I recommend Blackhat for these reasons, but certainly not for the acting.  Mann has a talent for finding fissures in popular personalities, such as Will Smith or Tom Cruise, and working those flaws into their cinematic characters.  But Hemsworth doesn't have much of a personality to begin with and his shifting accent fit less with the overall theme of cryptic communication and more with his already-flawed performing skills.  No cast with Viola Davis can be entirely terrible, and she owns her scenes with relentless focus and ferocity, but she's a side player to Hemsworth's center-stage mumbling.

It's not enough to completely detract from Blackhat, but enough that I understand if viewers aren't as taken with the results as I was.  But those who are able to work with the flaws and embrace the abstract nature of Mann's paranoid and violent world will find a lot to love in Blackhat.

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Tail - BlackhatBlackhat (2015)

Directed by Michael Mann.
Screenplay written by Michael Mann and Morgan Davis Foehl.
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tang Wei, and Viola Davis.

Posted by Andrew

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