Reflecting back on Hackers a generation later, it’s fascinating to look back at the film – and its electronica-infused soundtrack – as an audio-visual time capsule. While the 1995 cyber cult-classic reflected the public’s curiosities and fears that revolved around the emerging technology of the internet, it also showcased a burgeoning genre. Director Iain Softley’s purposeful music choices spotlighted a variety of the scene’s emerging stars – including The Prodigy, Orbital, and Underworld – and introduced many viewers to a bold, new sound.
It’s impossible to revisit Hackers properly, though, without context. When Hackers was released to movie theaters in the fall of 1995, the worldwide web, as it was known then, was still a thing of mystery to much of the global population. Those of us in the U.S. who were lucky enough to have internet access generally knew it through the safe confines of AOL, or, America Online. The portal, entered using “dial-up” via the phone lines, hosted three million customers in 1995, and offered a user-friendly way to send emails, connect with others through chat rooms, and, of course, “surf the web.”
An otherworldly look
Operating on the other end of the spectrum is the film’s hero, Dade “Zero Cool/Crash Override” Murphy, played by Jonny Lee Miller. While the digital prodigy is a master hacker, his actions are closer to those of a merry prankster than of a villain. When the high schooler relocates to New York City, he soon meets a group of like-minded cyber-punk friends, who unwittingly uncover – and are framed for – the work of an evil hacker (“The Plague,” played by Fisher Stevens). Together, the friends work to clear their names, and right the wrongs of The Plague’s pilfering code.
While the film has an otherworldly look about it, it still echoes many of the trends of the 90s. The inspired fashions of the cast fall somewhere between rave-wear, steampunk, and kink – a tangle of buckles, multipurpose sunglasses, and platform boots. Though the film was released at a time when computer nerds were overwhelmingly portrayed as, well, nerds, the cyber-wiz-kids in Hackers are edgy, digital ravers who attend underground parties and skate their way around futuristic arcades. It also doesn’t hurt that they are played by a cast of up-and-coming Hollywood stars, including Miller, Matthew Lillard, and Angelina Jolie – in her first, major leading role.
Pulsating soundtrack of electronica
Driving the Jolt cola-fuelled actions of the characters is a highly effective, pulsating soundtrack of electronica, which bolsters the trippy, fast-paced visuals of every scene.
For the film’s kinetic score, Softley recruited Simon Boswell – known for combining electronic elements with orchestral arrangements – and longtime Pink Floyd collaborator, Guy Pratt. Additionally, Softley culled music from some of the most exciting artists coming out of the scene, utilizing a broad range of styles – from the hardcore techno of The Prodigy’s “Voodoo People” and the ambient house of Orbital’s “Halcyon,” to the electropunk of Leftfield and John Lydon’s “Open Up.”
At the onset, the director felt that the use of electronic styles made the most sense for a film about the budding digital age. While electronic music was still widely underground in America at the time, the scene was much more robust in Softley’s native London.
“The music that was emerging [was] really in parallel with Britpop at that time. It was just as representative of what was happening in London and the UK,” Softley told uDiscover. “What I particularly liked was the ambient – almost trip-hop – that really was appropriate to what I was trying to do in terms of the world that [the hackers] inhabited themselves.”
“I was struck by how [the cyber world] was another counterculture,” continued Softley. “I saw music as something that defined counterculture. Not only that, I saw it as a way of just helping to create this world that was, in many ways, parallel to the psychedelic world.” Taking that concept one step further, explained Softley, “we coined this phrase ‘cyberdelic’ and named the club in the film, Cyberdelia. So to me, the link between the counterculture element in the film and music was absolutely essential.”
A musical revolution
Softley – whose 1994 directorial debut, Backbeat, chronicled the early days of The Beatles – also viewed Hackers as a film about a band of sorts. In his liner notes for the new, 25th anniversary edition of the soundtrack, Softley thanked the stars of the film, whom he lovingly referred to as his “cyber-punk rock band.”
“This was a group that had rivalries and loyalties, and they fell out and they got back together again,” Softley explained to uDiscover. To him, the underground world of the hackers was the “new rock and roll.” Mirroring a band with their specialized instruments, each of the hackers had their own customized laptop computers – complete with guitar straps for easy transport around New York.
Following the release of the first Hackers soundtrack – which also featured the iconic DJ Carl Cox, the Stereo MCs, Ramshackle, Machines of Loving Grace, Josh Abrahams, and Squeeze – were two additional volumes, released in 1997 and 1999. These albums primarily compiled music that was inspired by Hackers, including Moby’s debut single – 1991’s “Go” – a remix of David Bowie’s 1997 hit single, “Little Wonder,” and several selections by the Hamburg-based producer duo, Brooklyn Bounce.
Although Hackers spawned three albums, several of the film’s musical selections remained unreleased – until now. The definitive, 25th-anniversary reissue of the soundtrack unearths such sonic gems as “Hackers Suite” from Simon Boswell, and two instrumentals from Guy Pratt: “One Combination” and “Grand Central Station,” which features the unmistakable guitar stylings of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. Though Gilmour’s contributions have long been speculated, they were only confirmed earlier this year.
The next generation’s rock’n’roll
Softley’s music-forward vision for the film was certainly innovative, but on a broader level, the director created a platform for a genre that was widely underground at the time, introducing viewers – particularly those in America – to electronic music’s most exciting, up-and-coming acts.
“It wasn’t really music that was being used at that time in other films,” explains Softley. “So I always thought that it would be a great distinguishing quality of Hackers. But I think it was just too soon, in a way. People got into that music a bit later, which, paradoxically, I think, has been a big reason why…the film is very enduring.”
While Softley might have been ahead of his time, his instincts proved to be quite prophetic. In his liner notes, he recalls, “What I saw in the Hackers script was the opportunity not to look back, as I had done with Backbeat, but to look ahead and to try to anticipate what the next cultural move forward would be. I was convinced that what many people considered at the time to be the obsession of a geeky minority would become mainstream culture. This would be the next generation’s rock’n’roll, but what would be its soundtrack?”