Techno-thriller is a genre that rose to Hollywood’s centre of attention in the late 90s and 2000s with the dotcom boom in the tech industry. While the two weren’t quite simultaneous, in general, the sub-genre is synonymous with the Internet Age. Conspiracy thriller is a longtime favourite of Hollywood, these days using the light of the NSA spying leaks. The fun thing is, a caper/comedy/action/thriller film in 1992 largely foresaw all that. That film was Sneakers.
Martin Bishop and his team are industrial espionage specialists who test loopholes in peoples’ security systems so others can’t exploit them. They are what are called sneakers, which in computer security parlance mean something like ethical hackers. Marty has changed his name because he’s wanted by the FBI in connection of illegal redistribution of funds done way back in 1969. He is blackmailed by government agents into stealing a top secret box. After getting the box, Marty and his team learn that it can break any encryption system around the world, and that the “agents” who hired him were phony. And thus start the games.
There are a lot of plot devices used in the movie that were clichéd by the time of its release. Then there are a few that seem overused now but had to be fresh back then. What this means is that the film wasn’t original in every sense of the word. But, and here’s the thing, it used (or maybe even introduced) things that would go on to become crucial tools for filmmakers and screenwriters over the next decade and more. Allow me to provide some examples.
1) A technological office space where breaking-in demands the person in concern to maintain room temperature and move really slowly. Also, the infiltrator has to use air ducts to escape from the building.
2) A conspiratorial atmosphere where the protagonist is being chased by mysterious agents who may or may not be working with the government.
3) Hacking sequences where the parties doing so can control whatever they want to.
Now consider three films where these plot devices have been used, not necessarily in the exact same manner, and not the only examples.
For (1), consider the Mission Impossible films, the first of which came in 1996.
For (2), consider North by Northwest, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. That film influenced a large part of this movie’s first half, lending it a Hitchcockian feel.
For (3), consider any techno-thriller you’ve watched, especially late 90s or the 2000s. E.g., Swordfish, Die Hard 4.0 etc etc.
All three of these ideas have been used numerous times in cinema and yet, when you watch Sneakers, you feel a certain awe for Mr. Phil Alden Robinson and co. for the way they were foreseeing the ideas that would come to define the next generation of thriller movies.
The film uses two main ideas — surveillance and hacking. Sample this line from a character, “There is a war out there, a World War. And it’s not about who’s got the most bullets. It’s about who controls the information. What we see and hear, how we work, what we think. It’s all about the information.” You could easily be mistaken to think this line was being spoken in some room or café in 2016, not 1992. And that’s where the beauty of the film lies. It’s not just this one line. Hacking methods used in the film,which might seem Neanderthal now, were sort of precursors for the whole techno-thriller genre. Plus we have characters with unique technical skills sets that come in handy at crucial times. The fact that the movie showed swiping cards for entry into offices was also, you know, sort of cool. That might have been shown in other movies before this one, but I don’t think I ever saw someone use a swipe card in a pre-’92 movie. Plus, the colour palette used for the film, while clearly a product of the 80s, would go on to be used in multiple thrillers throughout the decade, with a neon-bluish filter, of course.
There’s also the small matter of the all-star cast. Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, Sidney Poitier, David Straithairn. Oh, and Mary McDonnell and Ben Kingsley. Wonderful, wouldn’t you say? The cast does a good enough job of keeping the film interesting and light. Yes, light! The film intermittently uses dry humour to offset its serious issues. And almost all of these moments pack a punch. Like the time when the team takes turn to watch a mathematician and his girl fool around in his office, through a telescope.
Sneakers is rated 7.1/10 on IMDb and 81% on Rotten Tomatoes. Also, it was rated 2.5/4 by Roger Ebert and PG-13 by the MPAA. Oh, and it grossed $ 100 million worldwide.
The opening credits, especially the showing of the title of the film, looks like an old PowerPoint slide. And similar to that, the whole film seems dated at times. But drop your judgemental glasses and you’ll find a movie that kind of predicted what was to happen in the coming decades in society, and consequently, it’s mirror — cinema. And if nothing else, Sneakers is eminently watchable for that. Isn’t that wonderful?
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