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'Hackers': File this one under 'Overheated'


"Hackers" is, like, really now. It's so now, so really, really now, so blessedly, incredibly super now, it seems unable to recognize that there'll ever not be a now or that in some sad but inevitable distant time, someone will say, "You know, that movie was so now. But no more. Now it's really then."

When will this happen? Oh, I don't know, but certainly by Tuesday.

Anyway, the movie is a superheated, superedited, hyperkinetic,

rockin', rollin' razzle-dazzle paean to heroic cyberkids, who surf the Internet having a laffriot at the expense of their befuddled elders. They hack the planet, going where they shouldn't go and daring those boots to walk all over them. It's like MTV on speed, and since MTV is already on speed, this one is really zonked.

A British actor named Jonny Lee Miller does a very good job playing an American cybergenius named Dade Murphy, who, when he was 11, crashed all the Wall Street systems and was therefore forbidden by a federal judge to touch a computer key again until he was 18. Having reached that age, he has now moved to New York. Quickly enough, he falls in with a crew of cyberpunks who all have colorful handles like "Cereal Killer" and "Crash Override" and "Nikon" and "Phantom Phreak," and each has a colorful hairdo that matches the colorful name.

A little love thing develops. The hot chick of the mob is the very aloof Kate (Angelina Jolie, Jon Voight's daughter). In the halls of high school, she just seems too cool for Dade until they meet in cyberspace, where their real lives are located. Then, since he's "Zero Cool" and she's "Acid Burn," true electrons may be exchanged between their files. It's so romantic!

Of course, as amusing as all this is, director Iain Softley realizes that sooner or later there's got to be more to the movie than kids sitting at keyboards in purple hair, and animated images of circuit boards as viewed from strafing F-18s. So he cobbles on a clumsy story about an evil computer security genius -- handle "The Plague," and played by Fisher Stevens -- who plans a huge computer crime but leaves clues that point to the merry hacker crew led by Zero and Acid.

Stevens is the big hoot here. His Plague is one of those over-the-top theatrical villains having such a good time you're afraid he'll pop a vein. He's like the Lucifer of computer culture, who once sat at the right hand of Bill Gates but has fallen from grace and now puts his genius into nasty mischief.

He's the road agent of the info highway. Throwing his eyebrows around his face like a Frisbee champion, he's all caramelized ego as he states the hacker's arrogant code: "There's no more good and evil, no more right and wrong; there's only fun and boring."

His idea is to threaten to capsize a fleet of supertankers, ending the world in oil slick, if some electronic millions aren't zapped into his secret accounts. He's so clever at this that he finds a way not only to subvert the nation's law enforcement agencies but also to pin the stunt on Zero and the boys.

Hey kids, let's put on a counter-computer war campaign. Yes, in reality "Hackers" is "Andy Hardy in Cyberspace," about a gang of kids who overcome their differences and work together. It has the same values as Andy and the gang. It celebrates peer bonding as the highest social ritual, it cultivates a sense of alienation from the larger adult culture, and it's only watchable if your brain has been raised to warp speed by 10 years' worth of total immersion in electronic communication.

It's a little hard to like or dislike the film, as it seems calculated to defy the formation of coherent attitude. You either go with it or you don't go with it; you either let it enter your own private cyberspace or you sneak down the hall of the multiplex and see "Waterworld" again.


Starring Jonny Lee Miller and Fisher Stevens

Directed by Iain Softley

Released by United Artists

Rated PG-13

** 1/2

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