Millennial Malaise 31: The Net

In Which Pizza can be Ordered Online

The most notable thing about the 1995 cyber thriller The Net is that Sandra Bullock orders a pizza. After a tough day of bug hunting a copy of Wolfenstein 3D and chatting up randos online, programmer Angela Bennet (Bullock) likes to relax like every other working stiff. Kick back, log on, and get a nice fresh pie delivered to your door courtesy of, presumably the premier provider of online za in the year of our lord nineteen-hundred-and-ninety-five. Such is life in the late 20th century, where an employee doesn’t even have to leave home for their work or a desk for their food. All necessity is merely a click away.

But this relatively minor bit of now anachronistic awe of getting food online, is one of the few small pleasures that The Net can provide. A techno thrill machine that seemed to be made on a dare to be as disengaging as possible. In the blown out, psychedelic, and apocalyptic filmscape that brought us visions like Hackers, Virtuosity, and Strange Days all in the same year, The Net is a terminal bore. A genre entry that is neither interesting enough to support its deadly serious tone, nor gauche enough to be comically enjoyable to a viewer acquainted with the genre. The Net then proves the old axiom true, it’s better to be bad than boring.

Through a listless two hours director Irwin Winkler (an accomplished producer who has credits on Rocky, Goodfellas, and The Right Stuff) constructs a ham-handed conspiracy meant to tear down the fabric of society with the mere power of the computer. In this terrifying world of new technology our lives can be upended just as easily as a pizza can be ordered online. The right people just need the right motives for everything we hold dear to disappear.

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Angela is a programmer who mostly debugs various websites and products, until one day she finds a backdoor that leads directly into high security government sites. She puts it in the back of her mind and goes on vacation to clear her head of the computer screen. Hell she even begins a romantic fling with Jack Devlin (Jeremy Northam), who shockingly, with a name like that turns out to be trouble. Jack wants the backdoor, and he destroys Angela’s life to get it, changing her identity and installing a dummy to take her place. Angela then has to use her tech savvy to reclaim her identity and stop the shadowy group of hackers before they bring the whole system down. All this because computers are connected, all this because of the net.

What’s frustrating is that the bones of a decent piece of pulp are laid out in the plot of The Net. The idea of greater inter-connectivity leading to greater vulnerability and social isolation, while not necessarily a novel notion, is certainly a premise that has gained more credence as the years pass by. We currently live in a world where we have an Internet of things. Where each toaster and baby camera can be connected and interfered with, that we as a society have prized convenience so highly that we become susceptible to the work of nefarious forces at the drop of a hat.

But Winkler doesn’t have the chops to make this interesting in the slightest. Instead we get a leaden story weighed down by charisma-less performances and sluggish momentum. We know Jack is up to no good from moment one, but the film spends fifteen minutes luxuriating in the tedious build-up to his villainous reveal. This never simmering tension is brought to bear on almost every aspect of the story. Angela spends precious minutes confounded by her identity swap before wising up to how she’s been conned. The final climatic moments are suffused with the thrill of watching information being copied to a floppy disc.

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One of the reasons so much of the contemporary cyberjunk fell back on garish imagery and grandiose style is that they couldn’t quite crack the fundamental problem of ratcheting up the tension of watching somebody clack away on the keyboard in a semi-realistic manner. The whirling VR eccentricities of other films might be silly pieces of outdated futurism now, but at least they held a sense of kineticism that is entirely absent from a project like The Net.

So all we are really left with is ordering pizza. A small grace note of oddity in a film devoid of excitement or incident. A big budget Hollywood thrill ride reduced merely to a smirking gif of the glorious An acceptable fate for perhaps the snooziest movie covered in the series so far.

Odds and Ends

  • I feel safe in saying this the most negative I’ve felt about a movie covered here. Probably tied with Spawn, which at least has the benefit of being insane.
  • The only other piece of cultural impact that The Net has is that it was released the year after Speed.
  • Angela debugging Wolfenstein 3D is odd considering the game had already been out for three years, but I don’t think Hollywood types would care anyway.
  • This screen grab also has aged unfortunately well:Screen Shot 2019-08-21 at 8.26.06 AM.png

As always, twitterletterboxd, and I Chews You (the podcast about cooking and eating Pokemon).

Next week we dip back into the well of ’99 films to pay tribute to Peter Fonda with Steven Soderbergh’s underrated gem The Limey.