In THE NET, Sandra Bullock (DEMOLITION MAN) plays Angela Bennett, a loner computer expert who becomes The Beta Tester Who Knew Too Much when a colleague stumbles across a backdoor being used to enter major databases and sends her a disk to take a look at.
Bullock spends alot of the movie saying out loud what she’s pretending to type. Angela mostly stays indoors, and most of her friends are either software company people in other parts of the country that she talks to over the phone, or people in “Cyberchat.” This being 1995, with dial up modems and floppy disks, that was still a pretty new idea, as was her ordering a pizza online (which I would still never do myself in this futuristic age). Of course it’s a movie that plays up the exoticism of computers and the internet, and heavily bullshits it up. The backdoor creates a rapid burst of screens of information that computers back then couldn’t have handled and that have no possible use except movie flashiness. A virus is instantly identifiable because it turns what’s on the screen into little shapes as it quickly destroys the system. Call it the Photoshop Mosaic Filter Virus. So it’s a goofy mix of dated technology and not-feasible-at-that-time.
While on an overdue vacation in Cancun, Angela meets Jack Devlin (Jeremy Northam), suave British hunk who happens to also be on the beach with his laptop, have the same favorite cocktail, share the interests listed on her online profiles and fit her recent chat room description of her ideal man. Hmmmmm.
After her purse is stolen and she and Jack have non-cyber-sex on his yacht she figures out that he’s trying to kill her (shouldn’t have left the gun with the silencer sitting there) and that he has the disk that had been in her purse. She barely gets away with the disk and her life, but by the time she gets back to the States her whole existence has been fucked with via modem. She loses her bank accounts, she’s been moved out of her home and forced into the new identity of “Ruth Marx,” who is wanted on prostitution and drug charges, according to police records when they look her up. Since she lives online and her Mom has Alzheimer’s there’s almost no one who can identify her.
Well, there’s one. She goes to her ex-boyfriend Dr. Alan Champion (Dennis Miller, TALES FROM THE CRYPT BORDELLO OF BLOOD). Even pre-9-11-right-wingening, if Dennis Miller is the only person you can trust then you got a fuckin problem. His sleaziness is inherent not only in his being excited to go to a hotel room with his panicked ex, but in his past as her shrink. But as he does what he can for her even though he’s skeptical about what she’s telling him, he’s pretty likable. It’s actually kinda sweet. (He does not help identify her to people denying who don’t believe her, though.)
The villains are a hacker group. Not quite DIE HARD villains like Timothy Olyphant, but not any more believable. In person they act like secret agents, taking on different personas and using guns, so you assume they’re feds. I guess they must be ex-CIA or something. Their whole trick is that they make the security software that has a monopoly on everybody’s computers, Gatekeeper, and it lets them in. And the billionaire CEO guy is the mastermind, so maybe this movie predicts John McAfee, the commercial anti-virus software baron who was accused of being involved in a murder, but now that I read about it it sounds like maybe that guy got set up or something. This guy in the movie is a definite scumbag. But you’d think after they ground all the planes at LAX, shut down the stock market and other major disruptions, these organizations would start looking for new software. It seems pretty clear that Gatekeeper ain’t cuttin it.
At one point there’s a foot chase between Angela and Jack, and they run through some sort of march for affordable health care that’s going on, and everybody’s holding candles. And I thought holy shit, this is like the climax of BLACKHAT, which is a foot chase through a parade that also has everybody carry candles.
The movies don’t end up being very similar, but it’s an interesting comparison because BLACKHAT is a more researched and based-in-reality version of computer crime, but also much more effective as a thriller, an action movie and photographs to look at, but I don’t remember THE NET getting the kind of shit BLACKHAT did. However, I checked Rotten Tomatoes and they have it at only 2% higher than BLACKHAT’s 34%, so I guess it wasn’t rewarded that much for its mediocrity.
There’s one pretty cool action moment: in a car driven by someone who she figures out is an impostor FBI agent, she grabs and yanks on the wheel, and unbuckles his seatbelt right before they crash. But most of it is less inventive than that. It’s hard to get too excited about standard issue thriller scenes like Chased Through Disorienting Carnival Rides and Sounds Insane When Telling Interrogator The Truth unless they’re done alot better than these ones.
But the main difference between this and a high quality thriller is the amount of obvious bullshit you’re asked to accept. Thrillers are allowed (maybe even required) to contain outlandish events, so they should ground it in realistic detail and plausible behavior. This one has a ton of one of my major movie pet peeves, which is phony-sounding newscasts. This was presumably made by normal members of an advanced, industrialized society who have had plenty of access to television in their lives. So they should know that this fictional news they’re making doesn’t come across like real news. I mean, they have professional voices to deliver it, but every single time the news is playing in the background or she happens to turn on the TV there’s a news story that directly relates to her or what’s going on with the hackers. Sometimes two news stories in a row that the broadcasters think are unrelated, but we know the score. And they throw in exposition that would never actually be included in the news, like reminding that don’t worry, everybody uses Gatekeeper software so they should be safe.
That’s another thing: when the news covers these hacker attacks they don’t try to whip their audience into a panic, as we all know real news does. They actually try to downplay the danger by calling the cyber-attacks “pranks.” It’s only an uptight government guy that wants to call the hackers “terrorists.”
Things like that make it a weak movie, in my opinion, but its main point is accurate and much more relevant today than it seemed to be back then. Our whole lives are on computers. Maybe it’s a stretch to think hackers could delete your whole identity. In fact that’s seen as so difficult now that it’s the McMuffin of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, Catwoman helps out in exchange for a mythical program that will erase her identity so she can start over. And of course the opposite tactic – exposing people’s information – has turned out to be a popular weapon.
But some of these things, like disrupting airports and the stock exchange, have happened for real. And it points to other catastrophes that could potentially be caused by malicious hackers, whether they’re suave undercover vacation dates, government, terrorist cell or video game fans. A small plane crash is caused by intercepting the pilot’s communication with the landing tower. Dr. Champion is hospitalized when they fuck with his prescription, and killed when they fuck with the information the nurses get about what treatment he needs. It requires human error for this to happen but it seems plausible.
So THE NET is no good but I will give it a mild pass for prescience.
Bullock got hot after SPEED in 1994, and became America’s humble sweetheart for a while as the star of middlebrow studio movies like this, plus more girly movies like HOPE FLOATS, PRACTICAL MAGIC and MISS CONGENIALITY. She became one of those actors who’s ubiquitous without seeming to have a very high standard of quality, so after a while it’s easy to have a kneejerk rejection of her as a representative of the status quo or some shit. But by 2009 she would have an Oscar (for THE BLIND SIDE) and I would say that she was really funny in THE HEAT and really good in GRAVITY, so she’s on the upswing right now in my estimation. And if you got a problem with that, well…
Northam, who I believe was making his American debut here, did stick around Hollywood long enough to work with a few interesting directors. He did MIMIC with Guillermo Del Toro, AMISTAD with Steven Spielberg, GOSFORD PARK with Robert Altman, and of course BOBBY JONES: STROKE OF GENIUS with Rowdy Herrington. In the last few years he’s been starring in TV shows (Miami Medical, White Heat, New Worlds).
This was not the only ’90s suspense thriller for former SNL Weekend Update man Dennis Miller. He also did DISCLOSURE (1994), NEVER TALK TO STRANGERS (1995) and MURDER AT 1600 (1997) (which I thought I had reviewed, but apparently not). His most recent work is JOE DIRT 2: BEAUTIFUL LOSER.
This is actually only the third movie directed by Irwin Winkler, who was more of a producer (POINT BLANK, THE SPLIT, THE MECHANIC, ROCKY, GOODFELLAS, all kinds of shit). He’s directed a few more though, most recently HOME OF THE BRAVE with Samuel L. Jackson and Jessica Biel.
Screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris had done a few movies previously, including WATCHERS II and MINDWARP starring Bruce Campbell, but they took off more after THE NET. They did an episode of Aeon Flux with Steve De Jarnatt, they did THE GAME (still one of my favorite David Fincher movies), and they did TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES. To be frankly honest they also wrote CATWOMAN and TERMINATOR SALVATION, but in their defense they did not write the most recent, worst TERMINATOR. So good for them on that. They did SURROGATES with Bruce and are supposed to be doing a DEATH WISH remake and a xXx sequel.
CLUELESS wasn’t the only summer of ’95 movie to be turned into a TV series. The Net had one 22-episode season that ran in ’98 and ’99. Winkler and Brancato/Ferris wrote some of the episodes. Brooke Langton (Melrose Place) played Angela Bennett, who goes through a similar arc of discovering a hacker group who erase her identity and frame her for crimes and shit.
There was also a DTV sequel in 2004, THE NET 2.0, directed by Winkler’s son Charles. It’s not about Angela Bennett, it looks like it’s just a rehash in Istanbul. But Brancato and Ferris get “based on characters created by” credits anyway.
Although the issues raised in THE NET were very ahead of their time, the technology itself and the way it’s used in society has changed so much that it still seems very dated. I would say it’s due for a remake, except really it’s better to do an unrelated movie that explores similar issues, which has already been done well with BLACKHAT.
Ha ha. You can buy 3.5″ floppy disks on Amazon, and I was going to link to them as a joke, but their tool actually won’t let you, it classifies them as “excluded products.”