Although the rise in technological literacy has yielded slightly better entertainment (e.g. Mr. Robot season 1), for the most part, Hollywood still likes taking the shortcut of “Technology is dangerous,” and audiences continue to respond with yawns. And while the Internet is a known quantity these days and filmmakers have to dive into its more unknown aspects like the Deep Web in order to tantalize viewers, in 1995, it was still relatively new to most people.
Irwin Winkler’s The Net prayed upon this unfamiliarity, and yet the larger threat it presents—that all data is computerized and therefore vulnerable to those who can manipulate it—remains remarkably relevant. We calmly accept that everything is computerized because it must be, and what we risk in security is deemed ultimately worth the convenience provided.
For those who have never seen The Net (if you have two hours to kill, it’s on Hulu), the film follows Angela Bennett (Sandra Bullock, hot off her breakthrough role in Speed), a systems analyst who spends her days rooting out viruses in games like “Mozart’s Ghost.” She inadvertently stumbles into massive conspiracy when she discovers a hidden program that allows the user to access and manipulate any database. However, when she first encounters the program, she assumes it’s a glitch, doesn’t think much of it, goes on vacation, and meets handsome stranger, Jack Devlin (Jeremy Northam), who works for a mysterious organization, and tries to kill her. Angela goes on the run, but discovers her entire life has been digitally rewritten.
Today, we know what identity theft is. Normally, it means someone stole your credit card info and ran up a bunch of purchases, although sometimes it’s far worse than that. Watching The Net, it seems like someone was having a conversation with Winkler, said the phase, “Identity Theft”, he replied, “Let me stop you right there,” and went to make The Net by taking the phrase as literally as possible. Angela’s identity is literally stolen, and because the mysterious THEY are out to get her, she’s forced to take on the identity of Ruth Marx while an imposter takes over Angela’s life.
What The Net does convincingly is that it provides constant reminders of how fragile every system is when we completely rely on computers. If someone can change your medical records so that doctors will accidentally give you the wrong drugs, they can. If the system says you’re now a felon with a history of prostitution, it can say that.
The problem is that the movie has to bend over backwards to make these “fearsome” possibilities seem remotely likely. The largest problem is that there’s a malevolent force—represented by Devlin—out to destroy Angela. When it’s revealed that he’s working for an online security firm, it’s fairly underwhelming. It’s basically, “What if the CEO of Norton Antivirus decided to take over the world and had people killed?” The Net couches what could be realistic fears into a contrived mess, so that Angela is on the run, and can’t prove her identity because everyone she trusts ends up dead. (Side note: The Net takes us back to a time when studios thought Dennis Miller, who plays one of Angela’s doomed pals, was charming; they were mistaken)
I don’t blame The Net for not seeing the problems with technology coming down the line as much as it relies too heavily on 90s thriller tropes. It feels like it’s based on a non-existent Michael Crichton novel that cautions about the power of technology, but then always turns towards a paranoid thriller because that’s the easy way to excite the audience. But it also faced a problem because it was capitalizing on an unknown. The Internet was just starting to make itself a daily part of our lives, but The Net relies too heavily on the audience’s ignorance. It constantly points out that the terrible things that befall Angela could happen, so you should be terrified (but not too terrified because you know there’s no grand conspiracy).
This weekend will see the release of The Circle, another film that tries to capitalize on our relationship with the Internet (specifically social media) and how that could be used against us. While the film has bizarrely not been screened for critics outside of the Tribeca Film Festival, its premise has a strong hook. The question is whether or not it will fall into the same trap that The Net did—using a grand conspiracy that’s completely removed from reality when the mundane reliance on technology speaks to something far more sinister and unsettling.