The smart, the fat, and the alienated

Hackers and Angus offer different movie visions of the high-school experience

American cinema usually splits the difference when it comes to depicting the high-school experience. In a hormone-driven subculture where democracy exists only as a popularity contest, most filmmakers have been wary of spreading perspective too thin. So we're offered the views of teachers (Up The Down Staircase, Dangerous Minds); the views of cool people (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Clueless); and the views of outcasts (Carrie, Sixteen Candles), with nary a border crossed in any of these disparate but entertaining films.

There are, of course, plenty of empty spaces to be addressed, as anyone who wasn't a jock or a cheerleader or a brain but still enjoyed high school can tell you. The real obstacle moviemakers must overcome is capturing the sense of exclusive membership, whether it was just you and your best friend or a clique, that adolescence and the ensuing teenage years seem to encourage. Because we're learning for the first time about our bodies, our ambitions, and our sense of place in the larger world, it seems criminal not to share that experience with someone else.

The seven youthful actors who constitute the ensemble cast of Hackers play characters who fancy themselves renegades, revolutionaries, and idealists when they are, in fact, just as homogeneous as the Junior Varsity. What they have on their side is burning curiosity about the worldwide web of computer systems, and the technical know-how to knock down digital walls in their pursuit of the information-age equivalent of forbidden fruit--top-secret government and corporate files.

Director Iain Softley, who steered the story of the Beatles' rise from obscurity in last year's Backbeat with impressive restraint, has let loose in his latest attempt to capture the essence of a generation and subculture. Softley casts his strangely androgynous, racially integrated team of Internet avengers against a universe of graphic effects that resemble the images from last year's gratuitous virtual reality sidetrip in Disclosure. The director concocts elaborate computer-animated scenes in which we're hurled through telecables and onto the Superhighway. On the live-action side, digital numbers and letters are forever flashing across the faces of our heroes, against the walls and ceilings of their bedrooms, and inside the New York corporate offices of a mineral corporation overseen by a crooked technowhiz known as The Plague (Fisher Stevens).

It's important to remember that you won't be provided with names for many of the characters in Hackers, since their online handles are so much cooler--names like Cereal Killer (Matthew Lillard), Phantom Phreak (Renoly Santiago), and Lord Nikon (Laurence Mason). These are the cocky, quirky, cyberspeak-spillin' homies who get framed by The Plague for a terrorist act on a series of oil tankers.

Screenwriter Rafael Moreu does provide us with the Christian names of two of the hackers, former child prodigy Dade (Jonny Lee Miller) and blue-eyed, bubble-lipped tough cookie Kate (Angelina Jolie). Dade is new to the New York City high school Kate and the rest attend, but he carries impressive credentials--an arrest by the FBI at age 11 for tampering with Wall Street computers from his playroom. Dade and Kate spend the movie trading double entendres. When Dade sits in awe at the memory capacity of her bedroom computer, she purrs, "What's the matter...too much machine for you?"

Against this backdrop of international intrigue and a teen romance only slightly less subtle than those recently pulled Calvin Klein ads, Moreu and Softley work overtime, thrusting into our faces one scene after another of kids' vices--industrial music, cigarettes, Jolt cola, video games, corporate raids. They attempt to build a franchisable mythology around the hackers while flirting with profound questions such as "Who owns information?" But in reality, the filmmakers care about none of these issues. They blatantly glamorize the hackers' illegal activities with a bravado that makes Tony Scott's Air Force recruiting film Top Gun look positively complex.

This would be all right, of course, if they could back it up with enough engrossing dilemmas, a few surprises, and some smart dialogue. Unfortunately, after a while, the glossy idiocy of Hackers makes you feel like you've been flipping through one of those teen celebrity mash magazines. Softley and cinematographer Andrzej Sekula (who exercised the camera for Pulp Fiction) force your attention toward Kate's cow-eyed, pouty gaze and Dade's Olivier-esque jawline. Pretty soon, the hard sell starts to wear on you, especially when the posse of supporting actors opts not to work against character limitations but cheerfully, idiotically indulge them (Lillard, an oddball treasure in Mad Love, is especially guilty here--after sampling his brand of surfer-guy comic relief, you want to punch his buck-toothed, Pippi Longstocking-braided, goggle-eyed head.)

In the final analysis, the smug posturing of Hackers reminds you of the vaguely fascist line being sold to grade-school tots through Mighty Morphin Power Rangers--the evil of nonconformity is fought through dressing well, having good bone structure, and hanging out only with people who look like you. The makers of this limp, inane teenage thriller have attempted to create the ultimate anarchists for the age of satellite. Instead, they've just encouraged another snobby clique.

Another high-school snapshot that opens this weekend, Angus, looks positively stripped-down in comparison. Of course, director Patrick Read Johnson had no need to generate a blustery lifestyle myth around his subject. Indeed, the woes of a fat kid have been lamented through small moments in countless TV movies, but rarely has the subject been explored at length (the exception is Anne Bancroft's debut as a filmmaker, 1980's morbid, self-pitying drama Fatso).

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