The Net Is Somehow Both Outdated and Prescient

Antisocial remote worker Angela Bennett (Sandra Bullock) stares at her screen.
Antisocial remote worker Angela Bennett (Sandra Bullock) stares at her screen.
Screenshot: Sony

The Net, starring a post-Speed Sandra Bullock, was made in 1995, so it’s a given the technology it depicts will look outdated 25 years later. But some of the broader ideas the film pokes into—amid many, many, many scenes of Bullock’s character being chased around by bad guys—are actually surprisingly insightful.

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The story is pretty simple. Bullock plays Angela Bennett, who works for a San Francisco software company but telecommutes from Venice, California. She’s an introvert and a workaholic but not exactly a shut-in; we see her visiting her mother (who has Alzheimer’s and doesn’t recognize her), talking with her co-workers over the phone and her online buddies over cyberchat, and cheerfully anticipating a solo vacation to Mexico.

A big part of Angela’s job is debugging computer games, so it’s pretty routine when one of her SF pals FedExes her a disc (computer discs are a huge part of The Net) containing a game with a strange glitch that allows the user to access sensitive corporate and government websites. Though Angela doesn’t realize it at first, the fact that she’s even aware of this glitch—the handiwork of malevolent hackers funded by a scheming billionaire—puts her life in danger. After barely escaping sleazy assassin Jack Devlin (Jeremy Northam) in Mexico, she’s swiftly subjected to identity theft that’s really more like identity erasure. Since she’s structured her life so that she barely interacts with other humans, and her physical ID was stolen by Devlin, she has no way to prove who she really is.

If you approach The Net looking for plot holes, you may find it very difficult to enjoy on any level. After the hackers cancel her credit cards and wipe out her entire digital life, how does Angela still have a valid plane ticket to get back into the United States? (At least the movie takes the time to show us how she gets around a missing passport, otherwise the whole movie would have to take place in Cozumel.) Why are there so many scenes where everyone is at the office but it’s clearly nighttime? Considering how often Angela visits her mother and how involved she seems to be with her care, why can’t anyone at the nursing home verify who she is? How does Angela, a woman who sits at her desk for long hours and apparently subsists solely on vodka, M&Ms, and the “best pizza in cyberspace,” have such a killer beach bod? Your brain will explode if you keep pulling at all the threads, so you have to let them go.

Jack Devlin (Jeremy Northam) is terrible at killing people but really good at ruining vacations.
Jack Devlin (Jeremy Northam) is terrible at killing people but really good at ruining vacations.
Screenshot: Sony

At any rate, The Net doesn’t even try to think any of that stuff through; most of the movie—directed by Irwin Winkler, and written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris, who also wrote David Fincher’s The Game—is Angela being chased around Los Angeles and San Francisco while she tries to figure out how to clear her name. Lucky for her, Devlin is spectacularly bad at his job, and she does manage to scrounge up one actual human who knows her: an ex-boyfriend played by Dennis Miller. He helps her out until the hackers get their mitts on his medical records, switch up his prescription so he’ll have an allergic reaction, then tinker with his hospital chart until he’s given the wrong medicine and dies. (There’s also a subplot about a homophobic government official who kills himself after receiving a false positive HIV test result, courtesy of the hackers—it’s jarring and just might be the most dated thing in The Net.)

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There’s a lot of intricate maneuvering to get a lousy computer disc back, and The Net invests a lot of energy into showcasing just what a worst case scenario Angela accidentally finds herself in. It’s a warning: look what hackers can do! They can peep into your video-rental history and figure out your favorite movie, so the contract killer who’s trying to seduce you can use Breakfast at Tiffany’s against you! They can steal the deed to your house so an imposter can sell it out from under you while you’re out of town! They can tamper with flight-plan software and cause planes to crash! They can manufacture a criminal record that’ll pop up the instant the LAPD starts investigating your claims about all of the above!

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While The Net obviously lurches into cyber-thriller territory at a certain point, the fears it stirs up are hardly fantastical. In 1995, long before social media and smartphones became a part of everyday life, the idea of someone conducting surveillance through a computer and tracking every element of an average person’s unremarkable existence must’ve felt shocking and futuristic. Despite living an extremely plugged-in life—she brings her computer on vacation! And did we mention she orders pizza online?—Angela is still horrified once she realizes how vulnerable she is.

In a scene with Miller’s character, she’s in a “Why me?” spiral: “They knew everything about me! They knew what I ate, what I drank! They knew what movies I watched. They knew where I was from. They knew what cigarettes I used to smoke. And everything they did, they must have watched on the internet! Our whole lives are on the computer!”

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Hackers can also trace antique portable phones!
Hackers can also trace antique portable phones!
Screenshot: Sony

The Net might not be the most prescient Bullock-starring movie (there’s no stopping Demolition Man), but it’s not as stuck in the past as it might appear. After Angela’s arrested on a (fictitious) car theft charge, she really starts to put the puzzle together. “Just think about it,” she tells the skeptical lawyer who’s been appointed to her case. “Our whole world is sitting there on a computer. It’s in the computer. Everything. Your DMV records, your social security, your credit cards, your medical history. It’s all right there. Everyone is stored and there’s like this little electronic shadow on each and every one of us that’s just begging for somebody to screw with. And you know what, they’ve done it to me, and they’re gonna do it to you.”

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The attorney treats her like she’s paranoid, but viewers in 2020 might have a different reaction to her lightbulb moment. Angela was onto something with that “little electronic shadow”—though the creators of The Net couldn’t have known it at the time, there’s now an entire economy built around the information we freely share every time we hop online. Identity theft, on a smaller scale than what Angela experiences but devastating nonetheless, is an all-too-common crime. While “hackers” in pop culture now usually resemble the anti-establishment warriors seen in shows like Mr. Robot, in real life, billionaires are indeed controlling a good chunk of what happens online. Though nobody lugs around computer discs anymore, ordering pizza online is still one of life’s lazy delights.

The Net is now streaming on Hulu.

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DISCUSSION

lightninglouie
lightninglouie

Even in 1995, I was struck by the movie’s weird insistence that ordering pizza online was a sign of deep social isolation and not a quick and convenient way to order dinner.