Touch Grass, Ghostman: Michael Mann’s Blackhat, AFK

Frank Connor/Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures

Nicholas Hathaway is very online. Perhaps even terminally so. In that way he’s not unlike me, writing this, or (I’m assuming here) yourself, reading this. He’s also just gotten out of jail, having been imprisoned for serious credit card fraud, and is played by Chris Hemsworth. That part isn’t true for me and, again, I’m going to assume not for you, either. 

Within a single cut, however, we get an experience that’s much more familiar: the sudden, discombobulating experience of swapping stultifying routines for the outside world. Hathaway is transported from the confines of his jail cell to the open tarmac of an airfield. His face drops from a stoic furrow to the expression of a kid lost in the supermarket. He stares out at a seemingly never-ending blue sky, the impossible opposite of the four walls he was sentenced to look at for 15 years. He’s totally overwhelmed. Chen Lien, played by the great Tang Wei, notices his statue routine and reaches out. Gently brushing his arm, and asking if he’s okay, grounds him in the immediate moment. Hathaway is touching grass, for the first time in a long time.

Plenty happens before this scene in Blackhat—Michael Mann’s much-maligned and lately-reassesed 2015 techno thriller—and plenty happens after, most of which will be unfamiliar to all but the most hard-bitten globetrotting hackers/secret agents. It’s been a while since my last shootout in a Hong Kong underpass, but my last internet freakout can only have been a couple of hours ago. Whenever someone finds themselves a little too online—often when fully absorbed in a completely trivial internet argument—you can be certain someone will pop up, offering that helpful panacea: touch grass. As with most online parlance, it’s a phrase that embodies something truthful, while simultaneously being deep-fried in delicious, bullying irony. It’s an acknowledgement that being online encourages an immersion in niche topics, interests, and disputes, but that sometimes it’s good to log off for a bit. Smell the roses. Recover something of your human self. Return to your body as something more than eyes for seeing and fingers for typing (and RSI development). 

It’s never that simple though, is it? Hathaway, like most of us, cannot be sated simply by “touching grass.” (He receives a blunter version of the phrase when he first makes contact with the film’s antagonist, who uses the nom de plume Sadak: “piss off and die, ghostman.”) Unsuccessfully concealed within that exhortation is the lie that the internet and “real life” can be so easily separated, a lie that an entire cottage industry has been built around—the digital detox. Using the terminology of addiction and rehabilitation, a seemingly infinite flood of self-help seminars, books, listicles, YouTube videos, and expensive countryside retreats urge us to throw away our phones, rally in the sticks, and get back to what really matters. We’re told that our true selves wither beneath the blue light of the screen.

Mann is at the peak of a digital filmmaking flex with Blackhat. The high definition images create such a complete depth of field that his characters cannot help but appear lost, similar to how we found ourselves cut adrift amidst the unfettered access and context collapse offered by the modern web. In concert with Hemsworth’s anhedonic performance, the sound and visuals in Blackhat capture something of the experience of pulling yourself out of an internet k-hole to return to the textures of the IRL, which the detox gurus tell us is the essential mission of the modern citizen. 

In his director’s cut, Mann pushes this effect more than anything else. The sound mix in certain scenes appears to mirror Hathaway’s subjective experience of, for example, the ambient hustle and bustle of a restaurant—an overwhelming, dizzying experience for someone unfamiliar with having to tune it out. The “flow” state is a phenomena beloved by corporate HR self-help gurus, of which the detox brigade are a subgenus of: the feeling that, during a period of deep concentration, whatever task you’re involved in fully engulfs your consciousness. No distraction, no intrusive thoughts; just you and your bullet journal, existing as one. (For those less sympathetic to the fcontents of productivity newsletters, the experience is likely familiar not from being immersed in work, but from spending too much time looking at your dang phone.) The world beyond the boundaries of the touchscreen melts away entirely, to the point you completely forget about your physical form.

Then your nose itches, or a delivery guy knocks on your front door, or your Pomodoro Timer goes off, or someone drops a load of plates, or shoots your best friend with an assault rifle, and you snap back to reality. It’s a disorienting moment, akin to leaving a darkened cinema into blinding daylight. You have to adjust to a major shift in subjective reality, remembering how to use creaking limbs, dormant muscles. For all that Hemsworth is some 200 lbs of lean muscle, Hathaway is not someone comfortable existing within meatspace. During that earlier moment on the landing strip, he struggles with being doubly institutionalized—by his time spent incarcerated and by his intimate understanding of the internet. The film, in part, sees him attempting to acclimatize to life outside of the twin hell jails he’s been trapped within. At least the prison cell was a physical space; one which, with some FBI finagling, he’s able to transcend. 

The digital detox is almost always framed as a temporary state of being: a week wherein you decide to switch the tablet off before nightfall, a retreat where you leave your devices at the door but pick them back up on your way home. How many of us experience a notable, permanent change in our relationship to technology after these fleeting respites? 

The current form of detox retreats were started by Levi Felix, a tech worker experiencing personal and professional burnout, who modeled his vision on the off-grid utopia offered by Burning Man. Like that festival of desert decadence and psychedelic shit-talking, Felix‘s Camp Grounded soon became an extension of Facebook’s corporate retreat program. The Zuckerberg Industrial Complex flies employees out for a brief poke of their head above water, before dunking them back down into the murky depths of the digital full-time. Hathaway’s attempts to disentangle himself from the digital world are as doomed to failure as anyone’s. 

More so, in fact. His power in the world, the reason he’s furloughed from jail in the first place, comes entirely from his mastery of online spaces. We’re often reminded, because Twitter users love reminding one another of things with the hectoring tone of a schoolmarm, that the internet is real life. Our experiences online are certainly different to those away-from-keyboard, but their effects on ourselves and the world around us are tangible. That’s sort of Blackhat’s whole thing. As much as Mann struggles to sell the hacking scenes as compelling cinema, he has no such trouble with their effects: car chases, gunbattles, and cross-departmental conference calls are the direct, real-world results of actions taken from a screen. It’s a reminder that the tossed-off actions of a keyboard warrior can have violent, everlasting consequences to fragile human bodies. Each of those revelations is deeply frightening, and it’s this reality check that fuels Blackhat’s nasty, bloody finale. The FBI crew ends up being offed, messily, by the private militia the antagonistic hacker has employed. Only Hathaway and Lien survive. 

Throughout the film, our hero has always been most in control when behind a keyboard. Even when he does something risky, like hacking the NSA, he does so fully alive to the potential consequences. He knows this world—it’s the same one that got him kicked out of college, unable to find work along a traditional tech career track and, ultimately, sent him to jail. Where has this power gotten him? Isn’t it time to log off? When it comes to finally confronting his as-yet-unseen enemy, he finds that he’ll only be able to defeat him by meeting face-to-face, mano a mano.

In doing so, Hathaway does not find transcendence. Instead, he capitulates to the horrible truth he’s been circling for the entire film: there’s no escaping from the internet. Touching grass isn’t enough to recover your humanity. All the steamy sex scenes in the world cannot fully return him to his body. The rules of engagement in real life are exactly the same as they are on a computer monitor. 

Hathaway and Sadak agree on a meeting during a religious procession in Jakarta. With his godlike physique, Sadak (played by Dutch actor Yorick van Wageningen, best known to English-speaking audiences as the rapist in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) looks far closer to the stereotypical image of a keyboard warrior than Hemsworth. Their back-and-forth—yelled above the crowds of Indonesian locals passing by—resembles a below-the-line argument in a comment section, or a heated Twitter spat. Two men seeking to dominate the other using facts and logic, finding that doesn’t work, and then going nuclear.

Before he abandons rhetoric in favor of stabbing Sadak and his forces to death with a screwdriver (it’s pretty gnarly!), Hathaway barks what amounts to a manifesto—one which is surprisingly close to the credo of digital detox adherents: “Not about money! Not about zeros or ones or code!” To use another popular and dubiously-sincere bit of internet parlance, it’s like Hemsworth’s character is trying to manifest this reality. It’s not enough. He still has to take the guy down, permanently. 

Blackhat is replete with Mann’s usual eye for detail, a highly-researched ripped-from-the-headlines thriller set in the world of high-stakes hacking. Yet Hathaway’s arc is identical to everyday tragedies: trying to get through a film without slipping your phone out, or retrieving it from another room, to look up an actor on IMDB; deleting your social media apps for good this time; entrusting friends with your details so you can’t log back in, until they relent and restore your access. It never lasts! We cannot recover some pre-web, purer version of our humanity. Such attempts to log off, to permanently disconnect oneself from the web, and regain some level of humanity in the process, are a fool’s errand at best. 

But that’s not going to stop us sub-symbolic people from trying.