Blackhat | Michael Mann | 2015 | ★★★★
In my review of Jurassic World I mentioned how I perhaps would have been more forgiving towards the film if the filmmaking hadn’t been so mediocre (to put it kindly). I know this would have been true because of how I reacted to Michael Mann’s Blackhat, which I watched after watching and before reviewing the dinosaur film. That film right there is a prime example of how a great directorial can overcome a basic script.
This is not to say that the subject matter of the film is not important as cyber terrorism is one of the biggest and most important issues that we are facing today. At first it looks like they are going to tackle these issues head on by showing how two rival economic superpowers come together to stop a terrorist that destroyed a nuclear plant and stole millions from the New York Stock Exchange. But then it devolves into a simple procedural with a villain with weak intentions. And when you add to that poor characterizations (really, what was the point of Tang Wei’s Chen Lien other than being arm candy for Chris Hemsworth’s Nick Hathaway?), and annoying computer programming gobbledygook and you’ve got the foundation for a less than desirable cinematic experience.
But then the movie starts with an impressive, beautiful and kind of surreal look at planet Earth from space that leads to the opening sequence, reminiscent of the iconic opening of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Red. Then we are inside the aforementioned nuclear plant in China, a place that looks straight out of a scene fiction story that looks as if it is being lit by neon lights, with what looks to be bubbling, glowing radioactive material in the background, warning us of the events that are about to unfold. When they do, they are shown through a series of bullshit, but nonetheless amusing and ultimately thrilling look into the inside of a computer, which shows us how it is being infected by a virus and being controlled by someone in a remote location.
After this, the script starts becoming a simple “get the bad guy before his big finale” story, but as the opening sequence indicates, Mann is just not going to fall into those trappings. He does this by treating each individual shot as if it’s the most important in the film. He treats every action as it’s going to be a game changer. A single touch gives a character the inspiration to do what he must do to stop the bad guy and not ruin his chance at redemption. A single caress later on gives his attempts at redemption meaning. There are also fantastic examples of symbolism, whether it is the last image a character sees as they take their last breath, or the lingering shot of a billboard for a watch during a scene where time is of the utmost importance.
Digital cameras seemed to have revitalized Mann. Ever since Collateral his films have an experimental energy that many filmmakers in their late 60s/early 70s have, especially after they worked in the studio system for years. This is, for me at least the best he has done since leaving celluloid behind. And it seems his energy rubbed off on his collaborators as people like cinematographer Stuart Dryburg, production designer Guy Hendrix Days, and costume designer Coleen Atwood are doing vital work on this. The same can be said of the actors, with everyone’s performances being on point and doing the best they can with some very thin characters. Viola Davis and Chris Hemsworth especially stand out. Davis plays her seemingly stock FBI agent with a noticeable weariness and sadness (despite the hard working nature of the character), which becomes impressive once we get to know a little an out her past. Hemsworth, meanwhile, finally gets to play someone that is not a god or a sports star, and deliver a performance worthy of our attention.
Given that this film was a catastrophic financial flop, it’s doubtful that Mann will get to play with a canvas this big again. If he doesn’t it’s okay because although it may not be a masterpiece because of its writing, Blackhat is still an example of filmmaking at its very best.