Ask Hackaday: What movies have the best/worst hacking scenes


It’s time to do your best impression of [Comic Book Guy] as you make your case for trash or triumph in big screen hacking scenes. We watch a lot of movies, and it’s hard not to groan when the filmmakers cut corners by doing zero research into what using a computer actually looks like. But then once in a great while you have a team that does its due diligence and puts up a scene that makes sense to those of us in the know. So we’re wondering, what movies do you think have the best hacking scenes, and which ones are the worst offenders? Leave your opinion on the topic in the comments section.

We realize that you can come up with tons of poorly done ones, what we would really like to hear about is who did it right. We’ll get you started with a couple of examples. The image on the upper left is a scene from Tron: Legacy which we think did a fantastic job of portraying actual computer usage. You can read more about the huge amount of work that went into it in this article (via Reddit).

In the lower right is one of the most shady movies scenes that comes to mind. [Hugh Jackman] is compelled to do some ‘hacking’ by [John Travolta] in the movie Swordfish. The caption at the top of the screen is “COMPILER”, and who the heck knows what the rest of that is supposed to be?

On the hardware hacking side, it gets a little more difficult, we would LOVE some examples of hardware hacks or mods done right.

342 thoughts on “Ask Hackaday: What movies have the best/worst hacking scenes

  1. I think that the most unrealistic “hacking” scenes I can think of are 1) Lawnmower Man. Which despite being a good plot take on Flowers for Algernon is horribly inaccurate on anything electronic. The only technological devices accurately portrayed are gas pumps and, well, lawnmowers. Maybe also light switches. and 2) Weird Science. But really I’m not going to moan about the non-realism of Weird science because it was never meant to be taken seriously in the first place. The computer was only meant to be a Deus Ex Machina in the story and it did its part well.

  2. Being a child of the 80’s….
    Wargames for it’s realistic portrayal of David’s shenanigans and the of course the whole 80’s feel. Would like to second chango’s response above. Outside the “WarRoom” scenes, most of the scenes with David are spot-on, not only in screen shots, but just in the overall hacker spirit.
    Sneakers for it’s portryal of the multi-disciplinary necessity to accomplish complex hacks
    Enjoy Hackers exactly for the campy-ness HelToupee alludes to above.
    No one has yet mentioned Antitrust.
    There are some reasonably plausible screen shots there mixed in with some of the usual Hollywood crap. Albeit some of the “code” shots are simply HTML scrolling by, they manage to portray some of the spirit. Plus there are a couple good Bill Gates slams heard and implied which are pretty hilarious. All in all entertaining without too many cringe moments.

  3. Don’t shoot me here, but some of the scenes from “Criminal Minds” are great. Others complete /dev/null :(

    Generally speaking though they give credit to Linux (though call it Unix way too much) and show some actual real commands. Unfortunately, as with almost everything, they also have the cinema obligatory “ACCESS DENIED” popups :(

  4. I can’t believe no one has mentioned CSI, the bastion of technically correct use of computers in TV shows, especially where they can resolve a hd resolution image from 4 pixels reflected off a hookers shiny ass.

    1. You forgot to mention the awesome noises every program makes. Chirping means analysing something or looking through a database with a billion records in a matter of seconds, and the gentle, microwave-tells-you-dinner-is-ready bleep means the computer automattically cross-referenced the fingerprints from the crime scene to a piece of fingernail found in an artefact from the Cretaceous period.

    2. There’s a great spoof of those scenes in Red Dwarf: Return To Earth. They resolve an image that’s bounced off a bunch of stuff like a bicycle and a drop of dog pee on a hydrant. XD

  5. I don’t think how the OS/GUIs look is the worst part. Since it is supposed to be entertaining to watch, also for non-computer-people. What bugs me the most is when they do stuff that really is not possible in a movie that is supposed to come as believable.

    Usually the stuff that is said is much worse than what is shown. I think a lot of movies and tv-shows would save face if they just didn’t go into any detail. And said stuff like “I hacked into the computer and got his e-mail”, not “I hacked into his computer by bouncing a trojan off a peer-node in an undisclosed VPN location by stripping a virus and using its core to camouflage the IP adress as a MAC address while programming a GUI that intercepted the password entry, and interporlated the keystrokes”

  6. The absolute, all-time WORST has to be Independence Day, when Jeff Goldblum’s character makes a wireless link to the mothership and uploads a virus.

    Jurassic Park was also pretty funny when the little girl looks at a completely generic UI and says, “It’s a Unix system. I know this!”

  7. The worst has GOT to be Independence Day.

    Because a computer virus written in C or assembly or whatever can be uploaded to an alien mothership from a far away solar system, be instantly recognizable (so aliens use similar chip architecture with the same instructions), and being able to write a skull and crossbones image on the alien framebuffer. ;) Then crash their alien system.

    After watching that painful movie, any other movie hacking scene instantly becomes credible.

    It’s like trying to hack a computer with a bowl of fruit.

  8. Best: Antitrust (joke), I think the phracking scene in Wargames is truly accurate. Modern one, the scene in Firewall when Harrison Ford is blocks the attacker IP after use Ettercap. The rest of the movie, sucks.

    There are some cool scenes in Aux Yeux Des Tous.

    Worst: The Independace Day virus.

    Best Hardware: Also Firewall. I bet you can do it, but of course, you will need an interface between the scanner reader and the IPod.. Also, almost any lock-picking scene in the movies work very well.

    Worst: The Arrow’s arrow-usb-dongle-to-hack-your-bank-account.

  9. It was a TV series, but one of the first episodes of “La Femme Nikita” had terrorists hacking into the FAA computers to cause a plane collision.

    In the story, the dialog goes something like this:

    (Nikita looking at a computer screen, talking to Birkoff by remote audio/video)

    Nikita: “Birkhoff, what do I do?”
    Birkhoff: “Do exactly what I say: type PS -AX”
    (Nikita types and hits return)
    N: “Okay, now what”
    B: “Hmmm… that’s got to be it. It’s the only one I don’t recognize”
    B: “Okay, now type KILL -9 2714”
    (Nikita types and hits return)
    N: “Nothing’s happening. Birkhoff, what do I do?”
    B: “Just wait, it’ll take a few minutes for the system to access the new data”
    (Display showing planes continuing towards each other updating once a second, then showing the trajectories slowly changing away from each other.)

    1. Just for plausibility’s sake, the terrorists could have been running a malicious program that hijacked/injected-into the radar feed to the flight plan computator, he found the process and killed it and the flight plan program corrected their paths.

  10. TV series “Person of Intrest” – 2-Pi-R

    What the hell was that?
    The Library of Congress.
    235 terabytes on-on 1 thumb drive?
    The Internet’s choking on streaming video. They’re gonna need a new compression algorithm to continue growing.

  11. There was an air traffic control movie (I forget the name) starting a Kieffer Sutherland and Harry Winkler. Winkler twice has to hack back together the ATC radar equipment to save the day (1st, by duct taping a DB-25F to a DB-25M that had fallen apart — taking out the entire center, the 2nd by somehow producing a one-of-a-kind, none-left-in-the-US, made-only-in-the-former-USSR vacuum tube).

  12. Surprised no one has mentioned it yet, but I was amazed at how well they did the computer screen contents in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, the Sony animated movie. It was really top-notch all around, and the scientist kid guy had very authentic content on his computer screens.

  13. Theres a scene in one of the Bourne movies where he changes the mac address of a pc or summit. I’ve been meaning to go back and have a look to see how accurate it was.

  14. I can’t think of the exact movie but it was about a marine that was on the run from the US Gov, well he finds himself at an old couple’s house that have a cable modem but no service… He changes the MAC address of the cable modem and jumps online with it, without even remembering how he knew this knowledge (Amnesia or something). Anyway this hack was as legit as it gets since it was an actual working hack for many many years on most any ISP prior to the D3 roll out.

  15. The Core (2003)

    The crew tries to manual open an automatic door. They take apart the control box and find a very complicated bunch of wires. And of course, the component that all state of the art control boxes share, the all mighty breadboard!

  16. Bones – S07E06 – The Crack In The Code

    There’s something about a “fractal pattern” engraved on the bone, that happened to be a “malware”. When scanned by a 3D scanner, the “malware” got into the “million-dollar computer” and DESTROYED IT with FIRE (the computer actually caught fire in the scene). And now I have cancer D:

  17. …flying through a network, searching the “garbage file”?!
    worst. ever.
    Also unbearable:
    Every other movie where the inside of a network is shown as some 3D city-like scenery.

  18. i remember one movie where some dude hacked the intelligent supercomputer which could talk with a green gameboy running some console and plugged in with orginal nintendo extension cord.

    1. Also want to mention Goldeneye, just watch the Send Spike scene. From memory it’s something like, Boris is trying to hack a computer, the FBI logo pops up after a while, he says something like “Shit they’re onto me! I’ll spike them!”, types “send spike”, and the logo disappears, leaving him to hack unopposed.

  19. I think computer hacking is seldom portrayed realistically in TV and movies simply because it is not really that visual. The worst portrayals of computer hacking are found in NCIS, and it’s spin-offs where they seem to all use Microsoft prototypes in the real world.
    I think the most realistic scenes are in War Games, It’s sequel War Gaines 2: The Dead Code and the 1984 TV series “Whiz Kids”.
    On the hardware side, “Flight of the Phoenix” where survivors of a crashed cargo plane, build a different aircraft from the wreckage to fly out of the desert. (with some of the survivors tied to the wings)

  20. I think it’s Die hard 4 when the terrorists eliminate the hackers who have done code for them by planting bombs in their computers and then make their monitor screens jitter so they will hit the delete key and activate the bomb. ?? How many people, let alone hackers, decide that the only way to fix screen jitter is by hitting the delete key???

  21. For realistic hacking, it might be quite a bit of a stretch to include in the category of hacking, be it hardware or software, but the movie Primer I thought was pretty good at keeping things within reasonable belief to those with experience in the fields of the technology presented therein.

    maybe movies with scenes with excellent hacking are hard to think of because any hacker worth his code is not going to be foolish enough to run around and hack out in the open with the theatrics of Cirque du Soleil.

    For silly “you can’t do that!” hacking, I nominate: D.A.R.Y.L.

    first off, talking ATMs.
    second, Daryl hacks Andy’s bank account by coding on the ATM’s number pad, significantly increasing the amount of available funds.

    growing up (after having seen that movie), I thought I could do something similar, if I could just hit the numbers random enough and fast enough. Protip: don’t try it when your parents are withdrawing money at the same time.

    on a side note, anybody else ever try “stickey keys” or “Alt+F4” on any kiosk or ATM they encounter that has a keyboard?

    and not quite relevant, but I don’t have anywhere else to put this:
    back in 2000, the Laser Terminals that the store employees at Target carried around to manage invintory had a keyboard and LCD– You could CTRL+Break out of the embeded software into “Dr. DOS”. if you broke out of the program while holding the trigger, the laser barcode scanner remained functional and could be used as an input device for rapid programming and use of special characters not available on the limited keyboard of the LRT.

  22. Alright, having read the entire list to this point………

    NOBODY MENTIONED…………”Army of Darkness.”

    …… really? It has got to be one of the best cult classics of all time. He makes a steam engine and gun powder. This is not to mention the prosthetic hand, or the chainsaw hand that he started out with.

    .. It really has to be one of the best B movies of all time…………….

  23. I’m just waiting for a movie where hacking is done by social engineering:

    “Damnit. It’s got a password. We need to brute-force it”
    “No good. It could take days, years even”
    “Wait, I’ve got this” *dials phone*
    “Yeah hi, my name is Frank from Google. Our records show that your Gmail account has been compromised by hackers, and we want to reset your password to avoid any loss of data. To do this, we’ll need your old password and a new password of at least 6 letters… uh huh…. uh huh.. with a ‘T’? Sure. Gotcha. Well, we’ll get that changed. Thanks for your time!”
    “His password is ‘jamessmith1972′”

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