For modern audiences, there is something delightful about the technology of the ‘80s and ‘90s on film. Whether it’s a brick-sized mobile phone or impossible operating systems, the mix of scorn and nostalgia these artefacts incite keeps them fresh in our memories – and our hearts.
For this, there is no better film than The Net. Even the title evokes the baby steps of the digital world, when ‘internet’ was spelt with a capital I and shortening it made you sound like you knew stuff, rather than an old hippie who might also say “Cool” or “Daddio”. It turns 20 today, and has all the hallmarks (like mobile phones from the Ark and the Fed-Ex’ing of floppy disks from user to user) that make a ‘90s technology flick so damn enjoyable for digital natives.
In critical terms, the film suffered then and suffers now, hovering at a 5.1 rating on Rotten Tomatoes despite earning $110m worldwide in the mid-90s. So why is there something of the cult classic about it, the kind of thing which encourages ITV to schedule it on a loop?
The film’s protagonist is Angela Bennett, a cybersecurity specialist who lives off internet takeaway and cyberchatting and has the luck to be portrayed by Sandra Bullock, who should be everyone’s favourite actress. Her co-worker Dale sends her a seemingly ordinary computer program (in the mail, on a floppy disk, obvs) with a backdoor leading to Gatekeeper, a controversial cybersecurity system in use around the world. Dale dies in mysterious circumstances, Angela is romanced and then menaced by dashing hitman Jack Devlin (Jeremy Northam), who is working for cyberterrorist group the Praetorians, and, rather inconveniently, her own digital records are replaced by those of a convicted felon called Ruth; all for the love of a 3” floppy disk. The Praetorians are in league with the Gatekeeper developers, scheming to gain access to the world’s computers and give Gatekeeper a monopoly on system security; Angela exposes the plot and saves the day.
As a whole, The Net isn’t anything out of the ordinary for Hollywood, but its paint-by-numbers approach to thrilling is wholly enjoyable. There are no dragging interludes, no apologies for over-the-top plot points or big themes shoved in your face. Its coup-de-grace is casting Sandra Bullock as Angela Bennett. An unrelentingly popular actor, her sincerity balances the film’s alienating qualities (alienating in 1995 for an internet-ignorant audience, and in 2015 for audiences who’ve moved on from Windows 3.1); people aren’t likely in the habit of reading their chat logs out loud unless it’s for YouTube, but with Bullock it’s done so sincerely as to pass without comment. The funny-with-hindsight floppy disks and crudely animated user interfaces, the sheer simplicity of hacking the world’s computers and finding the magical ‘backdoor’, can be brushed under the carpet when paired with this kind of protagonist and this kind of portrayal. In a perfect marriage of outdated plot and timeless lead, Bullock as Bennett circumnavigates what has become ridiculous by being consistently credible.
The Net is, in this way, a feminist Hollywood thriller. No, seriously. Unlike Bullock’s turn in Speed, where she’s always shadowed by the label ‘love interest’, or by Miss Congeniality’s ugly-duckling syndrome, Angela Bennett is presented without significant comment. There are shades of the ‘old maid’ trope where Bennett’s major relationship is with a Mac, but the film never backs this up with a conventional ending in which the old maid is finally cured of her spinsterhood; instead she regains a relationship with her mother (suffering from Alzheimer’s) and starts spending time outside. The end goal of The Net isn’t romance; it’s a fulfilling life, and one lived without the need of a romantic partner.
When Bennett’s old maid status is used against her – namely with ethically unsound romancing by Northam’s Jack Devlin – the trope is stripped of some of its power by Bennett’s agency. Any comment from Devlin and response from Bennett is devoid of two things; both of the self-destruct that made Hitchcock heroines stay with men who were bad for them and to them, and the sexual crowing of the conquering male. Bennett does not re-court the one night stand nor seek revenge for it; Devlin does not, for the most part, use their sexual relationship as a source of shame for her. In a ’90s Hollywood thriller with an old maid, a one night stand and an extramarital affair, sex and shame are mutually exclusive.
There are other proto-feminist threads in The Net: in Bennett’s typically male profession; in her simultaneous exercise of both reason and emotion; in her intelligence and initiative; all things which film struggles to grant to its female characters. Bennett takes the same role as Cary Grant in North by Northwest; so if feminism is the radical notion that women are people, Bennett proves that women-as-people are leads in Hollywood thrillers, too.
The Net is both behind and ahead of its time. Bullock’s portrayal of the net-hermit is a plus-point for the film’s early-adopter attitude, successfully looking ahead in a way it didn’t manage with floppy disks. The social/unsocial side of the internet is roundly explored, showing the pros and cons of both; Angela’s life is easily dismantled by Devlin because no one ‘IRL’ knows what she looks like, but her dedication to life in front of the computer saves her life outside of it.
So despite its rapidly deteriorating grasp on cutting-edge computing, The Net is worthy of our plaudits. It’s a sustained joyride through mid-’90s technology, echoing today’s pertinent questions on tech and tapping into fourth-wave feminism 20 years ahead of its time.