If your chief hope from the movies is that they tell well-crafted stories in a logically committed way, then no, Blackhat probably would not seem very good. The script by Morgan Davis Foehl isn't deficient, so much as it is vary puffy and disorganised, with no end to its dragged-out moments and inefficiencies, including a lengthy chunk in the back half of the film that hopscotches around Southeast Asia without any sense of narrative economy at all. And not in the "real life can be messy" way. Very strictly in the "we had way too much of a travel budget on this shoot, and decided to spend it all" way. And while it's uncharitable to say that reigning Sexiest Man Alive Chris Hemsworth isn't believable as a top-level hacker - no reason computer nerds can't be ripped and smoldering and have accents that don't quite know that they want to commit to "American" - it's a dubious bit of casting, no doubt about it.

The good news, then, is that Blackhat is a Michael Mann film, and storycraft and logical commitment are thus not as important as mood and style in providing the film's backbone. And oh, such mood and especially such style! Ever since he discovered digital cinematography, way back when with Collateral, Mann has been the American director most intently concerned with exploring how digital cinema can distinguish itself from traditional film-based cinema, rather than trying to find ways to mimic it. Sometimes, that results in Public Enemies, and we are all a little bit sad. But in the stylistic trilogy of Collateral, Miami Vice, (the first shot by Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron, the second by Beebe alone), and now this new film (shot by Stuart Dryburgh, who gets a lifetime pass from me thanks to The Piano) Mann has developed the representational possibilities of urban nights in directions that simply nobody else is interested in, while for the first time really digging in to find out how much he can push the distinctive digital look - hyper-crisp, grainless, flawless color separation - during the daylight hours as well.

If that sounds slickly inhuman, I don't suppose that I could argue otherwise. That being said, Blackhat tells a story in which its primary protagonist and primary (and largely unseen) antagonist communicate not just with each other but with the world largely through computers, and a certain willingness to replace the human with the digital is baked into it. It would be easy to look at the general scope of the plot - a team of American and Chinese government agents and outlaw hackers hunt down a cyber terrorist using his mad hacker skills to blow up nuclear facilities and destroy the stock market - and assume it's a panicky story about how too much internet can Kill Us All!!!, but if that was ever the thrust of Foehl's screenplay, it's absolutely not what Mann is interested in doing in the director's chair. The film is too laconic in its early stages, too eager to take CGI tours through the microscopic innards of computers, presented as beautiful environments of shape, surface and light, too fascinated by the guts of hacking - and, it must be said, too self-aware that "hacker blows up nuclear plants" is pretty much total bullshit - to sensationalise things. The movie ends up at 133 minutes, not because so much happens, but because what does happen isn't leaned on very hard.

So back to my point, which is that Blackhat is a film, to an extent, about computer realities replacing human realities, and the unmistakable digital sheen throughout the film helps to give that undercurrent some more weight. It's not a completely post-human thriller: it has the director's characteristic interest in male codes of conduct as executed by noble wicked hacker Hathaway (Hemsworth) and Chinese military officer Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom), cybercrimes specialist and Hathway's former roommate. With the wrinkle of Dawai's sister Chen Lien (Tang Wei) serving as Hathaway's love interest, while also being unusually well fleshed-out and autonomous for a woman in a Mann film. But the characters are never really more than the sum of their tropes; and that strands even as gifted a performer as Viola Davis in a part that doesn't require nearly her chops for such basic-level "tough guy fed" sarcasm.

Ultimately, then, it's definitely the case that the aesthetic matters more than the character drama, and the mechanics of the plot matter the least. So whatever hierarchy you require to find your movies satisfying, take that into account. But take into account well that the film's aesthetic manipulations are terrific: with precise control of focus and lighting and framing, this turns into a terrific meditation on bodies in motion through spaces, or just as often, bodies remaining firmly in place; it is a film where, late in the game, a shot of Hemsworth pointing a gun off-camera matter far more for its incredibly shallow focus on the gun barrel, leaving the movie star a blurry mass, than for where that gun is pointing or why. It's a film where the editing calls attention to shapes and colors and positions int he frame, more than it necessarily guides the plot. Primarily, the film is about being a physical human engaging with a synthetic, digital world; this is why the comically handsome Hemsworth, whose lean muscles and burly arms insist on his his flesh-and-blood presence even as they make him feel distinctly unreal, is actually an effective anchor for the computer-dominated narrative.

As a story, or even as an action thriller, it's not necessarily the most satisfying thing in the world, though when the same style is redirected to action setpieces, it can be awfully good: there's a gun battle following a slow-motion explosion that's just the most terrific thing. And even without being conventionally satisfying, there's something I found to be gorgeously magnetic about Blackhat: it immerses one into a mood and atmosphere without feeling the need to ground that mood in anything but itself, and it looks beautiful doing it. The ice-cold reception the movie has enjoyed suggests that this approach isn't for everybody, or even most people, but for myself, I found it to be totally absorbing from first to last frame, and a perfect cure for the Januarys.