Blackhat brings some hacking realism to Hollywood, but to what effect?

During one scene in the upcoming hacker action movie Blackhat, a team is sent into the control room of a burned-out nuclear power plant to gather clues about the evil computer saboteur who sparked its catastrophic meltdown. The investigators, led by a convicted carder sprung from prison to track down the enigmatic perp, take an axe to a server cabinet so they can retrieve a badly corrupted hard drive that ultimately reveals the suspect's true location.

As a way to advance the plot, the 60-second scene is mostly unremarkable. But had computer and security expert Christopher McKinlay not been retained as one of the movie's two hacking consultants, it would have been the kind of Hollywood fare that makes technically savvy viewers groan. Originally, McKinlay said, the screenplay called for the investigators to pull the data off of a perfectly functioning computer. When the 36-year-old—best known for hacking the OKCupid dating site to make him the most popular male user located in Los Angeles—told director Michael Mann electronics don't function in highly irradiated environments, the scene was rewritten to make it more technically accurate. The movie opens Friday.

Method acting

The scene isn't the only example of the pains Mann went to ensure his film portrayed computers and hacking in a realistic light. McKinley provided virtually all of the Unix line commands furiously typed throughout the movie by convicted hacker turned whitehat Nicholas Hathaway as he closes in on his quarry. The protagonist, played by actor Chris Hemsworth, was modeled after Max Butler, aka Max Vision, the security consultant turned credit-card stealing hacker profiled in Kingpin, a book written by fellow Blackhat hacking consultant Kevin Poulsen. (Poulsen himself served time in prison on a hacking conviction before becoming a journalist.) Early on in the planning, the director toyed with the idea of Hemsworth becoming a coder himself.

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