Decades from now, when computers have reset the pulse of our lives in ways that the information-superhighway cheerleaders haven’t imagined (or feared), will there be movies in which the ”action” consists entirely of someone sitting in front of a flashing terminal, hacking away?
In the cyber-thriller The Net, a disk loaded with deadly information falls into the hands of Angela Bennett (Sandra Bullock), a shy computer-systems analyst who negotiates every aspect of her life through her PC. The disk belongs to an underground group of terrorist hackers, who dispatch an assassin to Mexico, where Angela is on vacation. When she escapes, they use their sophisticated techno-tricks to wipe out her credit cards, her driver’s license — every official record that she exists — and to saddle her with a false, criminal identity. You can imagine Hitchcock having paranoid fun with this idea. The Net is an efficient, workmanlike thriller that, at its best, does a canny job of exploiting the more fanciful edges of computer-age dread. Angela has to beat the terrorists at their own game, defeating their plans (and winning back her life) through her own computer wizardry. And the film — like Angela — comes to life whenever she’s at the keyboard. It teeters on the edge of routine, though, during the cloak-and-dagger thrill scenes. The director, Irwin Winkler, keeps forgetting the whole point of his movie: that a keyboard and mouse can be more powerful — and exciting — weapons than a mere gun.
Just as our anxieties about wiretap conspiracies grew out of Watergate, cyber-dread may not fully click into place as a movie theme until the world is beset by a bona fide computer-launched catastrophe. The terrorist plot in The Net is too shadowy and abstract, and the picture doesn’t have enough characters. Basically, there’s Angela; the killer on her heels; and the smallish role of Angela’s former shrink and lover, played by Dennis Miller, who, despite his rather scrungy looks (he appears to be having a bad hair and bad beard day), livens up the proceedings with his playful smarm. It helps that the killer is played by Jeremy Northam, an up-and-coming English actor who, I think, could turn out to be a major star. Northam is suave in his very coldness, a lean-and-mean transatlantic Alec Baldwin.
What holds The Net together is Sandra Bullock. Her role here is really a piece of cheese. Like the Miss Lonelyhearts subway worker in While You Were Sleeping, it offers the absurd vision of Bullock as a virginal nerd — in this case, a nerd so isolated that she orders pizza every night through the Internet. (Okay, even beautiful women get lonely — but don’t these characters have friends?) But Bullock pulls you into the movie. Her overripe smile and clear, imploring eyes are sometimes evocative of Julia Roberts, only without the tremulous passivity. As an actress, Bullock has it all — heart and soul, and mind, too. Danger makes her blossom, and when she’s sitting in front of a computer keyboard, tapping into forbidden systems, her concentration is so compelling that we get the oddly ticklish sensation we’re thinking right along with her. B