Slick cyberterrorism thriller Blackhat is mostly empty calories

Chris Hemsworth and Tang Wei in Blackhat

Chris Hemsworth and Tang Wei in Blackhat

It’s always a little intriguing when a new movie is released and its reviews are all over the map, from one star to five. What did one critic see in this flick, one wonders, that another didn’t? There’s no accounting for taste, of course; but often, such films are worth a look for their strong suits, even if they’re uneven in quality overall and ultimately prove forgettable.

Some would respond, “That’s what DVD releases are for,” saving their ticket-buying dollars for higher priorities while they wait for whatever-it-was to come out on Netflix or show up in the RedBox at the supermarket. But if the main attraction of a middleweight movie is its look, its visual gloss, its snappy editing and striking scenery, then most of the reason to see it will be lost on the small screen. Such is the case with Blackhat, the new cyberthriller directed by Michael Mann and starring Chris Hemsworth as Hathaway, a genius hacker sprung from prison to worm out a terrorist who is using code originally designed by Hathaway to wreak international havoc.

Timingwise, the stars are well-aligned for Blackhat’s release, as new details of the North Korean government’s embarrassing infiltration of Sony’s computer banks emerge in the news on a daily basis. Here’s what’s right about the movie, besides the always-reliable Viola Davis’ spot-on rendering of an FBI agent assigned to track down a hacker who has blown up a Chinese nuclear plant and spectacularly manipulated soybean prices: Blackhat manages to combine the slick look, exotic locales and propulsive pacing of a James Bond flick with the wonky information-technology believability of Citizenfour. True, Bond got into cyberterrorist-stalking first, with 2012’s Skyfall; but Blackhat isn’t quite so cartoony and over-the-top; the evil hacker’s motivation is somewhat more modest than Total World Domination. (Fangirls of the Hemsworth brothers would doubtless add that the movie also furnishes a satisfying eyeful of shirtless beefcake.)

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There’s also a lot wrong about this movie. The admirably-accessible-but-not-too-vague explanations – both expository and visual, including some snazzy animated sequences of nasty malware snaking through the innards of computer chips like a racing scene from Tron – of how the nameless bad guy (Yorick Van Wangeningen) manages to assail his targets and cover his tracks are about the most plausible elements of a weak and predictable script. Shots of individuals and duos – including Hemsworth and Tang Wei as his love interest, a Chinese computer whiz whose brother, played by the terrific Leehom Wang, was by an excess of coincidence once Hathaway’s code-writing partner – are beautifully staged, lit and framed. But foot chases and crowd scenes utterly fail to convince, especially the climactic confrontation at an Indonesian religious festival whose participants seem inexplicably oblivious to the mayhem in their midst.

Visually, Blackhat races along, riveting the eye even as the plot holes mount up and the foreshadowing lands with an obvious thud. Yet it’s an action movie that paradoxically seems most convincing in its moments of stasis, the calm in the midst of the storm. Topical as it may be, the story is too flimsy to bear much dissection after the fact. Still, I can’t say that I wasn’t fully entertained while it was unspooling. And Viola Davis is always worth watching, even when her acting skills are thrown away on a disposable bit of fluff.

As cinematic junk food goes, Blackhat won’t stick to your ribs, but you could do much worse. Count me among those reviewers who gave it about half as many stars as there are available to give.

 

To read Frances Marion Platt’s previous movie reviews & other film-related pieces, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com and click on the “film” tab.

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