The dumbest hacking scenes of all time

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, personal computers became widely common among the general public. Along with that boom in personal computing came a bevy of movies and TV shows which used "hacking" scenes as a plot device. Inevitably, the enigmatic bad-guy hackers tried to access secret government files or unleash technological armageddon; conversely, the protagonists had to use their hacking skills to gain info about their adversaries or stop their evil plot in its tracks. The earliest movies and TV shows to feature hacking scenes were usually able to get away with wildly unrealistic scenarios, but as computer usage became more common and our technological literacy grew, viewers started to recognize these horribly inaccurate scenes for what they were—complete lies.

Seriously, who writes this stuff?

In retrospect, many of the most intense hacking scenes that wowed us 30 years ago are just plain laughable when you watch them today. While modern movies and TV shows have made some strides in creating more realistic hacking scenes, many productions still fall victim to the same technological tropes of the last few decades. In some circumstances, these scenes might even be purposely ridiculous. Just like programmers who compete to write the most intentionally bad code, TV show writers may be throwing these silly "zoom/enhance" scenes in on purpose, just like sound editors who try to sneak the "Wilhelm Scream" into their productions. According to an anonymous Redditor—who claims to have written for shows like CSI and Numb3rs—in some writing circles, the art of getting the most implausible technology scenes into your show is a total in-joke of one-upmanship. Keeping that in mind, Let's take a look at some of the worst hacking scenes of all time and why they were so bad.

Castle

In the eighth episode of season eight on Castle, Nathan Fillion's title character is trying to get access to information for a case his wife is working on, and he enlists a hacking accomplice to help him. Unfortunately for Castle, his wife has a cyber-security geek of her own, and an intense battle ensues—complete with code-covered Rubik's cubes representing firewalls, a pop-up cat video attack, and a magical cell-phone tracing sequence. Just as Castle's hacker is about to break through the last "blinky box," his wife gives the authorization to launch a "cyber-nuke" at him, which instantly fries his entire computer system. Yes, that really happened.

Chuck

We know, we know—Chuck is an action/comedy based on a super computer whiz who starts working for the government, and as such, it shouldn't really be taken all that seriously. There's a ton of unbelievable "techie" moments from this series, but perhaps the worst offender is a scene from the season five episode "Chuck vs. the Hack-Off." Chuck finds himself in a hacking battle with his life on the line. As he cracks wise and attempts to distract his opponent, he does some extra hacking behind the scenes to assist Sarah and Gertrude (portrayed by Carrie-Ann Moss of The Matrix) as they complete their secret mission. Even ignoring the implausibility of casually hacking into the Federal Reserve, this entire scene is just laughable. It's got all the classic tech tropes—loud typing, edgy music, and rapid flashy pop-up windows. The final seconds of the scene are the worst: Chuck enters a final command and instantly shuts off the power in the building. His rival hacker then restores the power by typing a few lines of code on his turned-off computer, but Chuck has already vanished, like the hacking ninja that he is.

NCIS

Of all the shows or movies on our list, NCIS is perhaps one of the most notorious offenders when it comes to inaccurate technology. In this epic scene from the 2004 episode "The Bone Yard," Abby goes into freakout mode when her computer is suddenly hacked. There's so much wrong here, it's almost painful to watch. Isolate the node and dump it on the other side of the router. Uh….instructions unclear, took dump on router. The pop-up windows of doom are coming so fast, another guy jumps in next to Abby and starts typing on the same keyboard to help her. Because button-mashing with four hands is twice as effective, obviously. "I've never seen code like this before," he gasps. Perhaps because an actual hacker is unlikely to actually display his source code on a target's screen, or perhaps because that green text scrolling rapidly past isn't actually code? (By the way, if you want to type like a hacking pro, check out this website—you won't regret it!) Blessedly, the boss saves the day by casually unplugging the computer monitor. Whew—that was a close one!

Jurassic Park

A list like this wouldn't be complete without Jurassic Park. The premise of the movie is bio-engineered dinosaurs brought back to life from blood found inside ancient mosquitoes, so we really don't have much room to complain about inaccuracies—but we're going to anyway. Let's start with Dennis Nedry's computers, which are running some weird non-existent hybrid of MacOS and Unix. If you want to see what it looks like, hold onto your butts—you can actually play with a faithful recreation of Nedry's desktop at this website. Next, let's get to what really bugs us about the "hacking" in Jurassic Park. It's not the cheesy "It's a Unix system!" quote, which inspired its own subreddit full of silly technology scenes. It's not the GUI that Lex Murphy uses to reactivate the park's systems—the interface, called FSN, actually did exist. No, what really bugs us about Jurassic Park is this: despite Nedry's security system completely mystifying chief engineer John Arnold (Samuel L. Jackson), a middle-schooler is able to figure it out—if painfully slowly. If Lex actually knew Unix, she could have opened a terminal and issued a command to find the systems to activate, which would have taken only a few seconds. Instead, the movie makes her use a ridiculously inefficient GUI program and as a result, the velociraptor almost eats Dr. Grant's face.

Unthinkable

Despite its star-powered cast—including Carrie-Ann Moss, Samuel L. Jackson, and Michael Sheen—Unthinkable didn't even get a theatrical run, going straight to video. This 2010 psychological thriller was notable for the controversy it stirred up over its subject matter: the torture of a man in order to find out where he's hidden several nukes before they are detonated. If the hacking scene shown here was any indication of the quality of the rest of the film, we aren't surprised that it was a total flop. Pause the clip above at about six seconds in, and you'll see something mind-boggling: the bomb expert is literally typing gibberish into an Excel spreadsheet to defuse a nuclear bomb. If you look closely, you'll also see what appears to be the actual screenplay to the movie open in a window behind the spreadsheet. We can't even begin to comprehend this level of laziness.

Hackers

Surprise, surprise—a movie completely about hackers features some of the most horribly inaccurate hacking scenes of all time. The film actually upset some real hackers enough that they took over the movie's official website. At this point, Hackers falls into the "so bad it's good" category. The scene we've included above starts out promising: Zero Cool uses social engineering techniques in order to obtain sensitive information from a TV station employee. This is an actual method frequently used by hackers and con artists to gain access to information they wouldn't normally have. Unfortunately, the scene goes downhill from there. Zero Cool does something very stupid—he changes the tape playing on the station right after talking to the security man, which can really do nothing but draw attention to the poor network security. After that, when hacker "Acid Burn" discovers Zero Cool hacking on his turf, a "battle" ensues. Intense music from the Prodigy plays as the pair duel over the TV station's tape machine. Acid Burn leaves nastygrams in a super-edgy font on Zero Cool's monitor, and Zero Cool responds with his own nastygram—which he pecks out on the keyboard a letter at a time. If you can type at least 10 WPM, you might be a hacker.

Arrow



While the premise of this scene—sending thousands of bogus requests in order to overwhelm or shut down a system—is totally legit, the execution is one of the worst we've ever seen. Felicity mindlessly bangs away on her keyboard while looking literally everywhere else in the room but her screen. Commands and code apparently don't have to be proofread in her world—a magical world where syntax errors don't exist. When the hacker attacking her system takes over their monitors, he launches a psychedelic screensaver that looks like Lord of the Rings on LSD. Unperturbed, Felicity and her crew continue to mash buttons while staring into the Eye of Sauron. The bad guy launches another attack, and he must really feel confident this time, because he smirks triumphantly before smashing the backspace button on his keyboard. That backspace attack causes the power to surge and spark on Felicity's equipment, but she's too tricky for this hacker. They run an "executable"—because simply using the word "program" isn't cool enough—and send the power surge back through the lines at the attacker. The resulting explosion literally blows the guy across the room. Oh, God, the tropes—they hurts us, precious.

Independence Day



The clip above doesn't show the entire scene, but we know you've seen the one we're talking about. Jeff Goldblum writes a virus on his Macbook, which uses totally the correct programming language to interface with alien hardware. They have to physically sneak the virus onto the mothership with a hijacked fighter ship—since wifi wasn't a thing in 1996—and then upload it with a super cool skull-and-crossbones icon. Once the virus is on the mothership, the aliens magically develop wireless data transmission in the span of a few seconds, the virus spreads to all the other ships in the fleet, their shields are disabled, and we blow 'em all to hell. Now that's what we call hacking, 'Murica style!

Superman 3



Long before the crew in Office Space hit on their get-rich-quick scheme, Richard Pryor did it in Superman 3. His character, a disgruntled employee, decides to funnel all the un-rounded half-cents from other employees' paychecks directly into his own. He hacks into the payroll department for Webscoe Industries—if you can call typing the words "OVERRIDE ALL SECURITY" a hack, or the clear-text commands he uses to make the transaction into his account. (It'd be nice if actual programming languages worked like this—the first commands we'd try would be "MAKE ME A SANDWICH" or "ACQUIRE A PONY.") We want to know what his character thought would happen when the accounting department noticed the $85,000 check the system made out to him. And no, that's not a Sharpie on a phone cord that Pryor points at the screen—it was an actual device called a "Light Pen," so at least the movie got that much right.

Swordfish (video NSFW)

In this scene, Gabriel (John Travolta) forces Stanley (Hugh Jackman) to hack into the U.S. Department of Defense's database, which is protected by "128-bit encryption." Now, 128-bit encryption is considered completely unbreakable. It would take the fastest computers we currently have approximately the current age of the universe in order to brute-force something encrypted in 128-bit. But not only does John Travolta's character say that good hackers can do this in 60 minutes—which is complete bull—he expects Stanley to do it in 60 seconds (while receiving a BJ at gunpoint, no less). Stanley's fingers fly across the keys, scrolling through lists of various common username/password combinations—if the DOD actually has someone using the combination "Guest/Password," then we're all in a lot of trouble. Miraculously, he comes up with the solution right as his time runs out. He's going to need a cigarette after that scene.

CSI: New York

Gary Sinise and his team are hard at work tracking down information in the real online game Second Life. When they find a "griefer" in the game who seems to know a little too much, they start asking him questions. The elusive blue fox hops on a hoverboard and actually runs away in the game. This leaves Sinise no alternative but to put a jetpack on his avatar and chase the dude in the game while mashing buttons on a number pad. Yes, that really happened. Because as we all know, the only way to avoid someone in a game is to actually run away from them. You can't log out of Second Life. It's part of you FOREVER.