Mar 31, 2021
By Ed McMenamin
Nineties cyberthriller The Net might be most famous for Sandra Bullock ordering a pizza from her computer.
It’s 1995, she has a hulking CRT monitor and chunky white keyboard. She navigates to “pizza.net,” orders a fresh pizza pie, and inexplicably chooses to pay with cash. Cheesy 8-bit graphics animate nearly everything in her online world. For audiences at the time, it was a low-key optimistic example of the brave new digital world – surf the web, order a pizza, the future is rad.
If only. In The Net, Bullock plays Angela Bennett, a white-hat hacker with a steady corporate job identifying vulnerabilities in new software and fighting viruses. Bennett works from her basement, though she apparently owns the whole house. She is perhaps the least-believable subterranean loner on film – clear skin, maybe even a tan, shiny hair, witty and upbeat. Still, she does not have a real friend in sight, and her only companions are sarcastic dudes in chatrooms named Iceman and Cyberbob.
The plot kicks into motion when a colleague sends her a floppy disk containing a virus, or something, that opens a backdoor into government computer mainframes. By morning the colleague is dead, and Bennett is the next target of hackers who need to reclaim the incriminating disk to hide a national conspiracy.
Bennett is resilient, though not exactly clever, as she evades the smooth cyber criminals, led by Jack Devlin (Jeremy Northam). He erases her identify, sells her home and assigns her a new name and false criminal record by effortlessly hacking police and government databases. Bennett is stuck. Because she has no friends in real life, and she only communicated with her employer online, no one can confirm her real identity other than her former therapist and lover, played by Dennis Miller. The film trusts audiences to believe that Bennett never met anyone in high school, college, or anywhere else before she bought a computer. Also, her mom has Alzheimer’s, inconveniently. Miller is reliably unbearable – smug, self-satisfied – and the cat-and-mouse suspense, which had clicked along at a good pace as Devlin pursues Bennett, grinds to a halt.
Along the pursuit, Bullock is charming, and Northam is convincing as a slimy villain, but The Net also loses much of its “cyber” setting. The floppy disk is a McGuffin meant to propel a fairly stereotypical ‘90s thriller. After the opening pizza delivery, there is little visual style or deliberate aesthetic meant to place the film in the world of hackers and cyberspace. Modern audiences looking for anachronistic keyboard-bandit kitsch will have much more fun diving into the nonsense of Hackers, released the same year.
Absent a visual point of view, or genuine enthusiasm for the era’s nascent online culture, The Net does manage to be prescient, if a bit alarmist, as it looks to startle the squares. Like our current slow-motion embrace and backlash with Silicon Valley, The Net begins with a trifle and ends with panic. Bennett, and the audience by implication, traded privacy and identity for the privilege of ordering pizza online.
“Our whole world is sitting there on a computer,” Bennett says in horror. “It’s in the computer, everything: your DMV records, your social security, your credit cards, your medical records. It’s all right there. Everyone is stored in there. It’s like this little electronic shadow on each and every one of us, just begging for someone to screw with, and you know what? They’ve done it to me, and you know what? They’re gonna do it to you.”
The new Blu-ray release will please fans looking for a time capsule of goofy ‘90s pseudo-jargon, dial-up modems, light-washed jeans and other various comforts of nostalgia. It’s packaged with a fairly unwatchable, direct-to-video sequel, the Net 2.0, directed by Charles Winkler, the son of The Net’s director Irwin Winkler.
Released 10 years after the first film, it looks and feels more like a desperate attempt to cash in on a known property than the continuation of a family passion project. None of the original cast or characters are involved, and the film is only connected to the original by way of pedigree and a recycled stolen identity story. Set in Istanbul, the cold, cheap digital photography does, incidentally, evoke mediocre, mid-2000s cell phones, plasma screens and low-res cameras.
Follow Ed McMenamin on twitter at @edmcmenamin