4 out of 5 stars

Remembered as an early example of the hacker movie by most, The Net is actually a thriller using the ubiquitous stolen-identity theme. There’s not much hacking at all until well over an hour, and the points made about the then-emerging digital world are cautious rather than celebratory. The Net warned us about placing too much trust in technology, with the risk of our personal data being misused. Sandra Bullock’s hacker may start out loving her gadgets, but she’s brought to a point where she smashes a computer, enraged at the way it’s insisting on a version of reality that contradicts her own non-digital knowledge. The New York Times even called the movie “technophobic”.

The set-up is simple enough. Angela (Bullock) is a systems analyst in California who receives a floppy disk (how quaint!) containing information that seems to incriminate a big computer security firm. On holiday soon after, she meets a charming gent called Jack (Jeremy Northam) and, realising they have a shared interest in tech, they have a brief fling until Angela realises his ulterior motive: to steal the disk and kill her.

Angela escapes from Jack but finds her house has been emptied and put on sale, her credit cards can’t be used, someone else has assumed her identity at her workplace, and so on. Effectively, her life’s been stolen. Angela’s duly informed things can be restored if only she hands over the disk but, instead, she sets about fighting back by using her hacking skills.

The disk and the computer vulnerabilities it exposes are nothing more than a McGuffin, really. It’s evident The Net doesn’t care much about the havoc that could be wrought by cyber-terrorists in league with a security firm. Although the big picture is dutifully explained, director Irwin Winkler, together with the writing duo of John Brancato and Michael Ferris, is clearly more interested in the travails of Angela than a threat to society.

Indeed, Winkler’s camera absolutely adores Bullock’s face. From the first shot of her (a rather mannered slow zoom through a skylight) we’re in no doubt that she’s the focus of the movie. An award-winning producer on the likes of Rocky (1976) and Goodfellas (1990), Winkler’s direction is still stylish even when Bullock’s not around. For example, an airport departure board flashing “crashed, hijacked…” when hackers take over the systems is a nicely surreal touch, and there are some interesting and unfamiliar Los Angeles locations. Winkler is also effective at conveying information through people’s interactions with their screens, too. Of course, this would later become the basis of entire movies two decades later in the likes of Unfriended (2014) and Searching (2018), but in 1995 it was a novelty.

Elsewhere, however, Winkler’s filmmaking can be heavy-handed. There are shots underlining obvious points and melodramatically sinister lighting of Northam. Sometimes he even seems unable to resist showing tech for the sake of it. (Why else would Angela’s chatroom have a terrible and not particularly helpful text-to-voice feature?)

Still, all this is very subsidiary to Bullock. As with Speed (1994), the action movie that propelled her to stardom, it’s primarily her performance that keeps The Net rattling along nicely. Bullock ensures Angela is awkward but never too awkward. Her character has reserves of inner strength but isn’t impervious to fear or panic. As a result, Angela is a far more nuanced and realistic protagonist than her lines or actions may suggest in isolation.

It’s all in the detail of the performance, and Bullock’s persuasiveness. One really believes, for example, that she’s talking to her fellow actors. It goes a long way toward overcoming the problem Angela’s not proactive for much of the film, but reactive. She flees or protests rather than take the initiative. But Angela makes for a compelling heroine because Bullock seems such an unlikely piece of casting, not fitting the 1990s stereotype of a geeky hacker, just as she didn’t seem like an obvious action heroine in Speed.

Northam is the only other performer of note, with his Englishness marking him out as a villain from the start, complete with a ridiculously evil leer to confirm it. Mark Isham’s score, at its best when lurking uneasily in the background rather than making big dramatic points, is also an important contributor to the movie’s success. There’s a good funfair chase scene, one of several slightly Hitchcockian moments in The Net, with his music set in opposition to a fairground organ.

Then, of course, there’s the tech itself—which seemed excitingly up-to-date at a time when we were still talking about the “information superhighway”, but is today more likely to prompt nostalgic amusement. Modems shriek and characters produce giant cell phones with long aerials. It’s accurate enough, fortunately, thanks to the involvement of two “low-grade wannabe hackers” (brothers Alex and Harold Mann) as consultants to spot howlers in the original screenplay like “she’s logged onto the Unix”. 

The Net received mixed reviews back in ’95, but it did well at the box office (grossing $110M against a reported $22M budget), and it deserved to. While there’s nothing very original at this heart of the story, it’s a plausible attempt to craft a thriller for the then-new digital age, and not devoid of some insight. It may not always crank the tension quite as high as it could, even if a few paranoid sequences (notably Angela finding “her” house up for sale) are genuinely gripping, but it’s never boring. And, above all, it has Bullock around to make us care.

USA | 1995 | 114 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Irwin Winkler.
writers: John Brancato & Michael Ferris.
starring: Sandra Bullock, Jeremy Northam, Dennis Miller, Diane Baker, Wendy Gazelle, Ken Howard, Ray McKinnon, Gerald Berns & Robert Gossett.