In real life, "hacking" is a technical pursuit that usually requires a boring, drawn-out, entirely unromantic slog. But fictional movie hackers are rockstar cyber-magicians who, through inhumanly frantic typing, visually overwhelming screen activity, and half-explained tech jargon sneered out loud in real time, can crack the world's most complicated computer codes in seconds.
While some movies depict hacking as some process of uploading, downloading, or password entry that doesn't actually qualify as hacking, other movies envision hacking as a dramatic, entertaining, and streamlined enterprise. Real hacking, though, is grueling and cumbersome. Screen activity is minimal, and hackers are likely to spend hours working on the same line of code. This won't do for Hollywood, of course.
From '80s computer-phobia, to the '90s tech-movie gold rush, to more modern examples of "tech nonsense... on FLATSCREENS," here are some of the most ludicrous hacking scenes in movie history, running the gamut from "technically semi-accurate but goofy" to "nothing that's happening here is anything."
What's Gettin' Hacked? The world's best hacker, Stanley Jobson, has one minute to infiltrate the Department of Defense's secure server while being... distracted.
How Long Does It Take? 1 minute, 7 seconds.
What's His Hacking Style? Stanley is forced to hack into the Department of Defense's server with a trigger to his head and a woman unzipping his pants in a slightly nonconsensual manner. While bad guy Gabriel, played by John Travolta with blond highlights and a soul patch, and his cronies watch, Stanley sloppily and nonsensically smashes his fingers against the keyboard of the strangely shaped laptop he's been given while strings of numbers and letters scroll across the screen.
While the data sequence may look technical, professional hackers who've analyzed the scene say it's a massive mess.
What's Gettin' Hacked? The cell phone belonging to geophysicist and protagonist Josh Keyes.
How Long Does It Take? 39 seconds.
What's His Hacking Style? This is the ultimate Hollywood hardware hack. Anti-authority hackster Rat, played by DJ Qualls, impresses his captors by using a gum wrapper as a conduit to blow into Keyes's phone, somehow granting it "free long distance for life." The trick succeeds, and Rat gets to work on saving the planet, one mouse click at a time. What else would you expect from a movie about scientists who travel to the inner core of the planet to figure out why it's no longer rotating?
What's Gettin' Hacked? Grazer One, a destructive and top-secret military satellite.
How Long Does It Take? About two seconds to add the gigabyte of RAM mid-hack.
What's His Hacking Style? Former US government computer programmer Travis Dane hijacks a train headed from Denver to Los Angeles. Dane, like most '90s movie villains, had been fired by the government due to his increasing "mental instability." He uses a portable computer powered remotely by an Apple Newton to regain access to Grazer One from a moving train. In the midst of the encryption action, he adds a gigabyte of RAM, which in reality does nothing to help him break the code faster.
Good thing Steven Seagal is also on board the train to save the world by shooting Dane's computer.
What's Gettin' Hacked? Computer programmer and systems analyst Angela Bennett puts her skills to use, helping a remote client with a pesky virus.
How Long Does It Take? 54 seconds.
What's Her Hacking Style? It's '90s all the way. Using floppy disks and multi-window executables, Angela swipes and types as she destroys a strange virus that does something no virus actually does: melts the images on the screen. More of a debugger than a hacker, Angela celebrates her victory by ordering a pizza on the internet. While the pseudo-hacking here is questionable, The Net gets some cred for predicting online customizable pizza delivery.