The moment that popular cinema temporarily exhausted the imaginative possibilities offered by virtual reality gizmos, the time came for a rash of films about another fad of the computer age: the internet. Judging by this thriller by Irwin Winkler, however, no one has quite figured out yet how to turn nattering on the Net into a satisfying cinematic spectacle.
The Net begins engagingly in a low key. Angela (Sandra Bullock) is a systems analyst and a devoted participant in internet conversations. Computer nerds, it seems, are not all of the male gender; Angela displays many of the already classic character traits of the Net-nut, including a profound tendency towards anti-social withdrawal.
Angela's isolation turns out to be integral to the film's plot; even her mother (Diane Baker), suffering Alzheimer's disease, cannot identify her. Testing out a new system, Angela one day finds herself on the information-trail of an awesome conspiracy involving corruption, fraud and murder.
Worst of all, once the culprits detect Angela's snooping, they include her within the conspiracy. Using every sneaky resource of modern telecommunications, the largely anonymous villains wipe out all traces of Angela's real identity, and proceed to frame her with a new one.
Once it gets into stride, The Net strongly resembles a typical '70s-style paranoid thriller, such as Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor (1975): the lone, righteous individual struggling against a shadowy establishment that knows everyone and can manipulate anything.
Only the appearance of the suave and ambiguous Devlin (Jeremy Northam) as Angela's love interest – his name is surely a nod to Cary Grant's role in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious (1946) – aligns the film with such intimacy thrillers of the early '90s as Sleeping With the Enemy (1991).
This is a routinely exciting, but not very thoughtful or compelling film. Winkler (Guilty by Suspicion , Night and the City ) does what he can to beef up the hi-tech high jinks. Where every article about the internet in the mid '90s whined about the slowness of the process, Angela suffers no such problem: she can infiltrate any computer system like quicksilver.
At any rate, the spectacle of Bullock bashing keys, speed-reading screens and inserting discs is a great deal more captivating than the ordeal of watching clunky astronauts frantically fiddling with switches in Apollo 13 (1995).
© Adrian Martin September 1995