Catching up with Blackhat over the weekend, I found myself reminded—and surprisingly often—of selections in this year’s Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival, which I previewed for this week’s issue of the Reader. Michael Mann’s latest is, on one level, a catalogue of textures that can be achieved with digital video. According to IMDB, the filmmakers used no fewer than five different video cameras, ranging from professional-grade equipment to “prosumer” models you can find at Best Buy. In certain shots the camera’s close enough to faces or objects to capture them in hard, ultraprecise detail; in others characters compete for the viewer’s attention with painterly smears of color. Mann and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh favor small, lightweight cameras during the action sequences so that any movement feels (as in Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s acclaimed experimental documentary Leviathan) shaky, almost vertiginous. Moreover the editing moves unpredictably between these different types of images, resulting in something like a moving photo collage. Blackhat does have a story, but I often got the feeling that Mann was less concerned with narrative than with creating a modern art piece on the theme of cyberterrorism.
Given these ambitions, I’m not at all surprised that the movie’s a commercial flop. (At present Blackhat has grossed about $7 million domestically, a measly 10 percent of its budget.) Experimental films, as a rule, don’t get commercial distribution—they certainly don’t open at multiplexes or get advertised as topical action thrillers. Not surprisingly the film has developed more passionate responses from critics than from popular audiences, inspiring eloquent defenses from Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, Keith Uhlich at Reverse Shot, Ryland Walker Knight at Mubi, and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the A.V. Club. These pieces address Mann’s visual daring, his allusions to postmodern theorists, and his fastidious research into computer hacking and counterterrorism agencies. Yet they tend to downplay the movie’s sheer perversity, which is likely why Universal released the movie in mid-January, traditionally a burial ground for studio films, and why mainstream audiences are avoiding it.
My feelings on Blackhat run closer to those of Dargis and others, but I sympathize with viewers who find it frustrating or emotionally inert. It’s not just the advertising executives at Universal who pitched the movie as a genre piece—the movie’s setup seems to promise that too. After a digitally animated opening sequence that takes us inside a computer, Blackhat gives us a nuclear reactor explosion, some government officials talking all tough and serious, and the implausible development of a convicted computer hacker (Chris Hemsworth) getting sprung from prison to help catch the cyberterrorists who caused the explosion. J.R. Jones aptly described Hemsworth’s performance as wooden, and I’d add that Wang Leehom and Tang Wei—who play his best friend and love interest, respectively—don’t make that great an impression either. At certain moments when the characters begin to discuss their pasts (as in a postcoital spooning session between Hemsworth and Wei), the conversation gets drowned out by the score or busy sound design, as though Mann wants to prevent us from liking them too much.
As for the plot holes, they’re so plentiful and egregious that I don’t think it’s necessary to point them out for you, but let’s consider one. How is it that Hemsworth and Wei move so freely between Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Indonesia when American intelligence agencies are hot on their trail? There might be a good explanation, but if there is, Mann left it out of the finished film. We simply see the characters in one country and then another. Throughout the movie we see Hemsworth break into computers half a world away with just a few keystrokes—when he and Wei suddenly materialize in a new country, it feels as if they’ve discovered a way to hack their way through the physical world. This doesn’t make much sense, but it’s a potent metaphor, plus it gives rise to some disjunctive editing that wouldn’t be out of place in the more impressionistic pieces at Onion City.
One could argue that the editing in question is proof that Blackhat is all form and little story. I’d argue that, as in many avant-garde films, the form is the story. Mann’s famous for his intuitive filmmaking, composing and editing shots on the fly. Here those strategies result in a chronic sense of placelessness—not only in the unusual shifts in location, but in the overly vivid closeups, which can have an otherworldly effect. When Mann first started shooting on digital video with Collateral, he said that he regarded DV imagery as akin to photorealist painting (it’s worth noting that Mann’s wife is a painter). Implicit in this statement is the idea that video is a wholly different medium than celluloid, one that requires a new visual language. In Miami Vice, Public Enemies, and now Blackhat, Mann seems to be searching for stories and characters that can be described in only that language, organizing narratives in blocks of sensations and presenting people as nodes within information networks.
The first several minutes of Blackhat take us from a view of the earth from space to an extreme close-up of a microchip. It’s not until the second or third scene that we hear a line of dialogue, and we have to wait even longer before we meet any of the major characters. Human beings, at least as we typically perceive them in narrative movies, don’t factor into this sequence, which sets the tone for the entire movie. In the world of information systems, Blackhat suggests, the primary concerns are either much bigger or much smaller than people—in fact it seems like this world doesn’t really need them at all. I was reminded here of a classic of experimental narrative cinema, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse. That film ends with an eerie, seven-minute sequence that revisits principal locations, but shows most of them devoid of people—a metaphor for the lack of human feeling in modern life. (I also thought of L’Eclisse when Blackhat briefly visits the Chicago Board of Trade, presenting the trading floor as a single organism much like Antonioni presented the floor of the Rome stock exchange.)
In Mann’s recent films, that absence of feeling isn’t something to be mourned, but simply par for the course in our age of omnipresent technology. (In Public Enemies he imposed a contemporary worldview onto the 1930s, suggesting that even the past isn’t safe from the demands of the present.) That’s not to say that Mann accepts things the way they are. His sounds and images—at once jarring and rapturous—represent a struggle to reclaim inhuman technology as tools for making abstract art. Beauty is subjective, especially when it comes to abstract forms—it can’t be determined by an algorithm or easily transposed from one culture to another. This is the underlying theme of much experimental video art, and I believe it’s also the theme of Blackhat. Why is Mann continuing to work in the medium of big-budget action movies if his concerns are so arcane? I think it’s because, fighter that he is, the genre gives him so much to work against.