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The 1980s saw a rise in hackers being featured on the big screen. Sometimes they were white hats, portrayed as near superheroes saving the day; other times, they were crackers — bad guys posing a threat to society.
In either case, to say that the portrayal of hackers and security professionals in hacker movies is accurate would certainly be an overstatement, but the mere presence of the CFAA, CCC and Anonymous means their influence is undeniable.
From cult favorites and B-movies to big Hollywood blockbusters, these movies are always fun to watch. At the very least, they offer an amusing view of computer hackers and their obvious love for Nmap.
A list of the best hacker movies ever made
Most of these movies are action-packed and a thrill to watch. Some even border hilarious, having aged less gracefully than others thanks to their particular views on the future of technology and ethical hacking.
As security professionals, we can at least be flattered that we’ve inspired so many movies over the past few decades.
So now it’s time for the main feature…our list of the top 10 hacker movies:
1. The Matrix (1999)
It’s no surprise that The Matrix comes in at number one.
The Matrix might not be a hacker movie per se, but the way it tackles the existential riddle of living in a computer simulation, and its depiction of an advanced and oppressive AI, make it a truly iconic movie.
We’re living in a world that grows more connected every day, and the question of how much of reality we actually see remains a provocative and relevant discussion. One might even say that The Matrix and the metaphors it presents have influenced more people to question reality than they would have otherwise.
The movie follows Thomas A. Anderson, a computer programmer by day and a hacker known by “Neo” at night. When he’s contacted by legendary hacker Morpheus, Thomas is awakened to the world’s harshest reality: everything he has known to be real is a computer program designed to enslave humans. It’s up to Neo to win the epic battle against technology to free humankind.
We’re sure many of you have already seen this massively successful film, but for those of you who haven’t, we recommend watching it as soon as you finish reading this list.
And then ask yourself: Will you take the red pill or the blue pill?
2. Hackers (1995)
“Hack the planet! Hackers of the world: Unite!”
After the mind-bending existentialism of The Matrix, Hackers is a fantastic opportunity to sit back, relax and have a laugh. This cult classic might now be seen as satire but it’s an easygoing movie that’s still loved by many. It follows a group of young hackers who’ve hacked the wrong guy — a black hat hacker who’s designed a virus intent on igniting five oil tankers. With the fate of the world being held at ransom, this high-tech (for its time) thriller makes for a fun and satisfying hacker vs cracker story.
The plot is by no means innovative, and the hacking scenes might warrant a laugh or two (even from those unfamiliar with real-world hacking), but if there’s a movie out there that better captures the 90’s era and the way the media often portrays hackers, we’d love to see it.
The film’s techno music and counterculture wardrobe have greatly influenced the way the world sees hackers; some actual hackers have even adopted this style. Also featured are references to many cybersecurity topics including social engineering, phreaking and malicious software. Not only do viewers get a glimpse of law enforcement raiding young hackers, they get an in-movie rundown of the many different things that can be hacked — like sprinklers!
3. War Games (1983)
Shall we play?
While this movie didn’t influence the fashion trends of young hackers, it did scare the government into passing the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) in 1986.
War Games follows David, a young computer fanatic who finds a back door to a US military computer, WOPR (War Operation Plan Response). This technological achievement was designed to predict the possible outcomes of nuclear war. Believing he’s only playing a nuclear war simulation game, David activates an all-powerful nuclear weapon control system and nearly starts World War III.
War Games, more than any other movie on this list, shows the amount of influence popular culture has, not only on the public, but on the governing agencies and the laws we have. Even if the plot doesn’t seem entirely plausible, this hacker movie presents a captivating look into the dangers of nuclear war, and the havoc insecure systems can wreak on the world.
Now this movie is truly a classic sci-fi action piece from the ’80s, and every video game, computer and science fiction fan needs to see it. Tron features a skilled programmer who gets transported into his own game and the digital world known as The Grid, where he passes through levels and fights for his life to confront the Master Control Program.
The movie TRON was made while many special effects were still in their infancy, so they might actually seem comical. And while the weak writing and acting don’t help, it’s still an entertaining experience that illustrates what might happen if you lived in a video game.
A high-profile prequel has been made, it’s spawned numerous comic books and TV series, but still…nothing can beat the original. The movie is thought by many to be ahead of its time, and here’s a fun fact: it’s a Disney movie.
5. Sneakers (1992)
“It’s not about who’s got the most bullets, it’s about who controls the information.”
Sneakers is another entertaining movie from the 90’s that, in contrast to Hackers, is more technically accurate with a more serious feel. The plot finds students Martin Brice and Cosmo hacking into networks at their university and stealing funds to donate to social causes. Cosmo is arrested and goes into hiding.
Years later, Martin, who now calls himself Martin Bishop, is running a team of physical penetration testers when they are approached by the NSA. He doesn’t agree to their demands, but is blackmailed by the officers (aware of Martin and Cosmo’s former identities) who need to recover a secret black box. The team braves fights with enemies and encounters interesting situations that dredge up old memories.
The cast is amazing and it’s a must-see for anyone looking for a good hacker movie. While on the surface it’s an action flick, a number of cheerfully comical scenes make it a fun watch. And along with a depiction of right versus wrong, we get a look at the early days of penetration testers, back when they were testing physical attack vectors.
6. 23 (1998)
Maybe the movie 23 hasn’t exactly influenced the public, but it was loosely based on the incident surrounding the German Chaos Computer Club (CCC) and Karl Koch. 23 explores the cyberespionage case in which Karl Koch was arrested for breaking into US government computers and planning to sell their source codes to the KGB.
The movie highlights the events leading to this incident, and the players involved: Karl is a young hacker living in post-Cold War Germany. With the help of his friend and a strong belief in social justice, they begin breaking into all kinds of systems, including the US government and corporate entities.
To make money off of their hacking, they decide to sell their information to the KGB. Pressured by having to perform better hacks, Karl succumbs to drugs. During one drug-driven delusion he hacks a nuclear power plant which leads to an explosion in Chernobyl. He then breaks down and enrolls in the witness-protection program to flee from the KGB’s threats. Later, Karl’s body is found, burned in a forest.
This is not an action movie created to entertain you with its views of technology and hacking portals. 23 is decidedly more of a drama, exploring the early days of hacking, crackers and the darker side of their story.
7. Ghost in the Shell (1995)
The list wouldn’t be complete without one animated feature, and to many this is the pinnacle of Japanese animation films, often cited as the bestever. This cyberpunk anime is based on the manga of the same name: Ghost in the Shell.
The story follows cyborg Motoko Kusanagi, an officer who works for a police division that deals with cybercrime. He’s hot on the trail of a hacker known as the Puppet Master, who hacks into the brains of cyborgs. As with many anime films, philosophical metaphors and topics are woven into the story and as the plot progresses, the question of who is doing the hunting becomes more difficult to answer, and the story draws us in even deeper.
This film has influenced many others of a similar genre, but it stands the test of time and remains relevant to this day. Any anime fan, or anyone interested in diving into this genre needs to see Ghost in the Shell.
8. Mr. Robot (2015–)
Okay, Mr. Robot isn’t a movie, but it’s series television’s most recent venture into the cybercrime genre. It’s been widely praised for its accurate technical portrayal of information security and data privacy as we know them today.
The plot revolves around Elliot, a cybersecurity engineer by day and a vigilante hacker by night. After he is approached by a young woman, Elliot becomes acquainted with a man who calls himself Mr. Robot, who tells him about the about E-Corp, an organization Mr. Robot believes is trying to control the world. Elliot finds himself in a moral dilemma, as that is the company he is paid to protect.
This hit TV series has shed new light on information security the public’s stance towards it. Mr. Robot reveals not only the real implications of data protection and cybersecurity, but also what may be the most technically accurate representation of that community’s everyday life. It’s thought of as one of the best series on information security and if you haven’t tuned into Mr. Robot yet, we strongly suggest you do it now. You’ll have enough seasons for a weekend binge!
9. Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (2011)
In this fourth installment of the Mission: Impossible series we see a lot of hacking, hijacking and everything else that brings joy to the security professionals who love this series. Just as in all the other movies in the franchise, Ghost Protocol is action-packed from the very start. You’ll see iPhones used to crack door codes, hijack networks, break into a prison’s security system and other scenes of glorious hacking action.
The story focuses on Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and the IMF, an organization wrongly accused of an explosion. In the mix is Hendricks, whose access to Russian nuclear launch codes fuels his plans to launch an attack on the US. Promptly, Ghost Protocol is invoked, which means a stop to the IMF.
This movie is great fun for all the action lovers out there. And its decidedly high-tech hacking scenes make it a highly entertaining hacker movie to watch.h.
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10. The Net (1995)
The Net is a B-movie dream. It isn’t a “good” movie, and has a laughable plot, but it’s another opportunity to have a laugh while seeing what the world thought of the Internet back in 1995.
The story follows Angela Bennett, a computer expert and systems analyst who lives here life on the Net, with very few friends aside from her virtual ones. She’s sent a program to debug and, in the process, discovers the confidential databases of different government agencies. While on vacation, her identification documents are stolen — along with her entire identity. The people behind all of this are, of course, the evil hackers.
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This one hasn’t really aged that well and many parts of it seem cliché today. It does, however, share a look into the world at the time, and the fears many had of a frighteningly-connected Internet.
Good thing it’s only a movie, right?
Many of these hacker movies don’t paint a realistic picture of cybersecurity and the hacker scene — you won’t learn any new pen testing techniques, for instance — but they are truly fun to watch. Whether you seek Friday-night entertainment with a little light counterculture comedy, or you want to enjoy a mind-bending thriller that prompts you to question your reality, this list has it all.
Have we missed any titles you think belong on this list? Share your thoughts with us on Twitter and stay tuned for more lists of pop culture representations of the Internet, infosec and cybersecurity folk.
Sara believes the human element is often at the core of all cybersecurity issues. It’s this perspective that brings a refreshing voice to the SecurityTrails team. Her ability to bridge cognitive/social motivators and how they impact the cybersecurity industry is always enlightening.