Near the beginning of long-waited Bourne Supremacy sequel Jason Bourne, a CIA worker rushes to his boss to deliver bad news.
“We’ve been hacked, sir,” he says (more or less). “The worst since Snowden.”
Said boss (played by Tommy Lee Jones) then turns to him and says “What? Snowden didn’t hack anything, he worked at the CIA and leaked documents. Why are you so ill-informed? You, Sir, are a bad CIA man.”
Well, at least he did in my head. In the film itself this comment is accepted at face value –and it’s just one of many ways that this film, ostensibly all about technology and its importance to espionage, weirdly misunderstands that technology.
Let’s start with the basics. TV and film have always been laughably bad at depicting what computers can do on screen (the hilarious use of email in the first Mission: Impossible is a personal highlight), let alone the more complex practice of computer hacking (see Fortress, Jurassic Park and WarGames).
Jason Bourne continues in this hallowed tradition. Now, I’m not claiming to be an expert on computer science here (I’m really, really not), but even I’m pretty sure that when a computer hacks the CIA mainframe (as happens early in the movie) it doesn’t create an icon of a little computer firing lasers at a bigger computer behind a forcefield, to helpfully tell the CIA that they’re being hacked.
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Later there are yet more jarring moments like an attempt to track Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) by “access[ing] all the social media profiles in that square” and an agent yelling “ENHANCE!” at the blurry camera image (a classic), a bit where a famed hacker’s computer is wiped because he left a mobile phone on in the same room and a Mark Zuckerberg-type social media tycoon whose response to privacy concerns from his millions of users is basically saying “We’re not spying on you, honest,” which the entire world just accepts without checking anything.
And perhaps most offensively of all, throughout the entire movie every single person texts in entirely capital letters. The whole time.
PRESUMABLY IT WAS A CHOICE TO MAKE THE (MANY) TEXTS THIS FILM USES EASIER TO READ ON SCREEN, BUT I PERSONALLY FOUND IT IRRITATING AND WEIRDLY IMPLAUSIBLE – EVERY CHARACTER IN THIS FILM WOULD HAVE TO WASTE TIME PRESSING MORE BUTTONS ON THEIR PHONES TO CAPITALISE THE TEXTS, TAKING EVEN MORE TIME CONSIDERING THAT WHEN YOU USE PUNCTUATION YOU’re in danger of going back to lower case on the majority of mobile phones. You don't expect high-powered spies to waste their time making it seem like they're shouting all the time.
More generally, throughout the film computers are shown as magic boxes that can do whatever the plot wants them to, and it’s just lazy. Imagine if guns were treated the way computers are in films like this – they’d never run out of ammo, bullets could fly around corners and up into the sky and the weapons themselves would probably be made of candy. Jason Bourne throws out computing buzzwords and ties in interesting real-world issues like privacy, but it has absolutely no idea what any of it really means.
Below, I’ve written a scene of roughly the same technological accuracy (and level of buzzword use) seen in Jason Bourne, which I hope will give you a sense of what I’m talking about. Maybe they could use it in the sequel.
CIA agent Alicia Vikander angrily paces around a bustling computer room, whose inhabitants are desperately trying to track Jason Bourne.
“He’s just instagrammed a Panini in Oxford street,” one barks to her – “hashtag #Londonlivin’”
Thinking quickly, she throws back orders to another programmer – “Quick, see if he’s checked in anywhere on Foursquare” – and then returns to scrolling through Bourne’s tumblr for any clue as to where he is.
“Goddamit,” she mutters. “These Supernatural gifs are too ambiguous. He could be anywhere.”
Shaking her head, she rises. “It’s time,” she shouts. “UNLEASH THE HACK-BOTS!”
Exploding from around the room, small silver computer-robots burst through the windows and jet towards the last known location Bourne was trending on Twitter.
“Have them tear apart any antique sideboards and chevron lampshades they can find,” she tells her no. 2. “Based on Bourne’s Pinterest board, those might just pull him out of the shadows.”
“Sure thing boss,” he replies. ‘We’ve loaded them up with Wi-fi cartridges and they’re e-breaking into every modem between here and St Petersburg. We’ll have him in no time, assuming the server priests can keep up their incantations.”
But when tracking the robots, the pair soon realise something is wrong.
“Oh no!” Alicia Vikander exclaims. “Bourne has counter-hacked us with a shielded modem! The computers are turning against us! My career is over! #Mondays!”
You get the gist.
In the past, action movies got away with this sort of inaccuracy all the time, but in a world where TV series like Mr Robot show that hacking can be exciting even when it’s close to reality and when the film-going audience is more tech-savvy than they’ve ever been before, I feel like there’s less and less excuse for films to put forward such a false version of technology.
Look, I know it’s just a silly action movie and I might be being a little harsh. But these aren’t just throwaway moments – Jason Bourne is a film that’s supposed to be ABOUT all this technology, and how today’s spying is more about digital information than super-spy assassins (an idea similarly explored in the latest James Bond film Spectre). If you’re using technology as your main plot point, I’d say you have a duty to try and make that depiction as close to accurate as possible.
Otherwise, what’s the point in tackling that real-world theme? The reason it was an interesting topic to use in the first place was because data-mining, hacking and internet surveillance are real concerns in the world today, and the further away you get from the reality the less compelling a story it is. The characters might as well be waving wands.
So here’s my future pitch: next time just have Bourne ditch the computers, spend his time escaping from shadowy government forces and do some cool fight scenes. It’s what these films have always done brilliantly well, and I’d love to see more of it.
The computers? Have Bourne drop-kick them out of a window, and never mention hacking again. The franchise will be better off for it.
Jason Bourne is in cinemas now