Identity theft: the culture crime of the nineties, soon to evolve into a pandemic in the new millennium, is ever so skillfully humanized and plumbed for its paranoia in Irwin Winkler’s The Net (1995); a movie since dated - rather badly - despite some very fine elements gone into its gestation; including a taut screenplay by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris, and some stellar acting from Sandra Bullock, Dennis Miller and Jeremy Northam; then, as yet undiscovered by American audiences and therefore primed to play the uber-sinister hitman/villain of the piece with an even more ominous autonomy and authority. The internet, an indispensable part of our lives now, was, at least in 1995, still relatively uncharted; the idea of a person’s entire history, identity and credit rating ravaged by computer hackers hardly old hat; the invisibility of ‘surfing the net’ given rise to a whole new way to destroy someone, often from millions of miles away. Somehow, I preferred a simpler time when the criminal element just held us captive at gun or knife point ‘mano a mano’ on a darkened street corner – ski mask optional. At once, The Net foreshadows the future of cyber-crime, even as it now plays as a quaintly robust, if mildly cautionary postmodern cinematic slant on the tried and true thriller genre, our ethernet stalker driven from his keyboard to pursue his intended victim via more conventional methods.
Budgeted at $22 million, The Net earned back more than double its outlay; a sizable hit for Winkler. The gimmick in this movie is the stalker and victim both are evenly matched – at least, from a technological standpoint; the race against time predicated on who can access and decode the encrypted files more stealthily to reveal the truth. Reclusive computer programmer, Angela Bennett (Bullock) is in for an unwelcomed surprise when she inadvertently unearths a wormhole in a popular computer-based security program, ‘Gatekeeper’, ingeniously put there by its inventor, Jeff Gregg (Gerald Berns) precisely for the purposes of holding hostage the companies investing in its technological safeguard. The plot is far more insidiously realized from the outset, responsible for the suicide of a U.S. Senator, Bergstrom (Ben Howard) who is opposed to the flawed logic of having one all-encompassing program to manage and maintain virtual security for essentially all the U.S. government’s classified online databases. Bergstrom, a strong opponent with conservative values, has his medical files doctored by Gregg’s underground super-hackers, known as the Pretorians, to suggest he has AIDS. Perhaps Gregg intended to blackmail the senator into seeing things his way. Instead, Bergstrom, believing the lie, swallows the barrel of his own pistol in abject shame after cryptically bidding his wife ‘goodbye’ on his cell phone.
Angela stumbles into this honeycomb of traitors under the unlikeliest of circumstances; asked by fellow programmer, Dale (Ray McKinnon), to examine a disquete containing a prototype webpage for an innocuous rock band – Mozart’s Ghost – only to discover a spurious ‘Pi’ symbol in the bottom right hand corner, providing clickable ‘instant access’ into everything from Los Angeles’ Water and Power billing information to top secret encrypted FBI files. This discovery could not have come at a worse time. Angela has not had a vacation in years. Living like a hermit in her bungalow, her stressors include looking after a parent (Diane Baker) suffering from Alzheimer’s and running away from a severely flawed love affair with her psychoanalyst, Dr. Alan Champion (Dennis Miller). Escaping to Puerto Rico for a little R&R, Angela is oblivious to the fact Dale’s twin engine Cessna has been deliberately brought down en route to her place with coordinates suggesting he was near the airport, when in fact he was being directed miles off course to his own death.
On her tropical getaway Angela encounters a suave stranger, Jack Devlin (Northam) who effectively embodies all the virtues she has been looking for in a potential mate. In fact, Devlin has been hired by Gregg to put a period to Angela and take back the disquete Dale sent her. He’s also hacked into her email correspondences to learn about her past, likes and dislikes, thereby presenting himself as the perfect love interest. Still unaware Devlin is only after her to acquire the disquete Angela is easily enamored with Devlin’s presumably well-traveled alter ego/playboy; the two sharing stories and a romantic stroll along the moonlit beach. Devlin pays a local to steal Angela’s purse and recover the disquete, making chase after the supposed assailant; the two meeting up in the bushes a short piece up the beachhead. The disquete recovered, Devlin wastes no time pumping a bullet into his accomplice using a silencer to muffle the shot, returning to Angela with a knife wound he has inflicted upon himself and encouraging her to climb aboard the ‘relative safety’ of his yacht moored nearby. Unsuspecting Devlin’s murderous intent, Angela complies. Devlin sets out to sea, planning to dispose of Angela in the middle of the ocean. Alas, she discovers the disquete and gun in his coat pocket while he is below deck bandaging his wound, asking the all-important and unnerving questions that lead to a confrontation and narrow escape.
Knocked unconscious, but miraculously resurfacing on the beach relatively unharmed, Angela awakens inside a Puerto Rican hospital with only vague recollections of her ordeal. She quickly discovers she cannot reenter the United States without her passport, stolen along with her other forms of identification in the discarded purse. However, when Angela approaches the state department for a new passport, she realizes her identity has been altered; her picture married to the statistics of one Ruth Marx. Pretending to be Marx, simply to expedite her return to the U.S., at the airport Angela discovers her car is missing. Worse, arriving by cab to her bungalow she finds her house has been cleaned out, the property put up for sale by a perplexed realtor (Gene Kirkwood) who explains to the police Angela Bennett is not who she appears to be. After all, he’s already met the woman impersonating Angela whom he has taken at face value. Indeed, in running their background check on the real Angela, the police records reveal her to be Ruth Marx; a known felon with multiple convictions for prostitution, drug dealing, bribery and extortion.
Angela is arrested and taken to jail, her court-appointed defender (L. Scott Caldwell) encouraging her to tell the truth. Angela begins to piece together the circumstances of her incarceration – deducing the Gatekeeper program and Devlin are responsible for altering her identity. Naturally, the public defender is unconvinced. After all, how could anyone hack into an impregnable security system and gain access to police records? Angela now uses her one phone call to contact Dr. Alan Champion, the only man who can vouch for her identity. Alan is sympathetic to Angie’s story, but only insofar as it might prove a springboard for rekindling their romance. Alas, Angela has bigger concerns, pleading with Alan to help her investigate for the truth. She convinces him to place her mother under an anonymous name as a patient in another rest home of his choosing. Meanwhile, Devlin has picked up Angela’s scent; using the Gatekeeper program to hack into Alan’s medical files and change his prescription meds to cause an allergic reaction that sends the good doctor to the hospital as a patient. There, Devlin further manipulates the hospital’s computerized patient records to suggest Alan is a diabetic, requiring insulin injections. The lethal dosage administered while under the hospital’s care causes Alan to go into cardiac arrest. Angela is now left isolated to fend for herself.
She gains insight into the Pretorians from a fellow cyber-hacker, Bob, who agrees to meet her at the Santa Monica pier. Alas, Devlin is again more than a few steps ahead, murdering Bob in his apartment and arriving at the pier to take Angela as his prisoner. A harrowing chase ensues, and Angela narrowly escapes Devlin by concealing herself in the gear shaft of a whirling carousel. Sometime later, Angela is arrested when Devlin puts out an APB on Dr. Champion’s car, presumed stolen. Enter Ben Phillips (Robert Gossett). Pretending to be an agent with the FBI, Phillips gleans all the information he can from Angela’s misguided notion that she is safe with him. But Angela catches Phillips in a lie, and realizing he is one of Gregg’s goons, induces a car wreck, escaping on foot. Angela now makes her way to San Francisco to confront the woman (Wendy Gazelle) who has assumed her identity at Cathedral, the computer-based software company she once worked for; hacking into the building’s security system to create a false fire alarm – thus, forcing the immediate evacuation of its staff. In the resulting chaos, Angela hides in a nearby closet, hurrying to the fake Angela’s cubicle where she manages to download a hardcopy on disc of the Gatekeeper program before encrypting the computer itself with a new password the imposter is unable to access.
Devlin chases Angela through the streets of San Francisco, their cat and mouse journey culminating with a rendezvous at the Computer and Technology Expo taking place at the Civic Center. Angela manages to sneak into the Gatekeeper Pavilion, armed with a virus she intends to upload into their mainframe, thereby exposing Gregg and his minions to the world. Devlin appears to have arrived in the nick of time, moments before Angela can complete her upload. But actually, it is Devlin’s smug superiority in believing Angela could never outsmart him that ultimately results in his undoing. With a simple keystroke he inadvertently uploads the virus himself. As the Gatekeeper program implodes for all to see, Angela escapes and gets lost in the crowd. The fake Angela and Devlin pursue her to the overhead scaffolding where Devlin accidentally shoots his accomplice dead, believing she is Angela instead. Angela then emerges from the shadows and strikes Devlin with a fire extinguisher, hurtling him to his death off the scaffolding. The Gatekeeper program destroyed, Angela’s real identity is restored along with Bergstrom’s real medical files; the government indicting Gregg while news report suggests two unidentifiable bodies were discovered at the Expo. Angela recovers her mother from the nursing home, determined to begin anew by buying back her bungalow and tearing down its high fences and heavy latus-work once erroneously presumed as her safeguard from the outside world.
It is to director, Irwin Winkler’s credit a lot of The Net remains a heart-pounding cautionary tale about the dangers lurking inside the virtual world. The Brancato/Ferris screenplay is fairly disturbing. Viewed today, Winkler’s action/drama seems even spookier, perhaps in light of wiki-leaks and other mass hacking schemes that have proliferated since The Net's debut. The film ought to be noted for its’ brilliantly staged set pieces; the best of these, Angela’s ill-fated confrontation with Devlin at the Santa Monica boardwalk; a sequence that manages to transform the gaiety of a warm summer’s night on the midway into a harrowing piece of claustrophobic escapism. Sandra Bullock carries the film in a way few female stars of her vintage can. She’s far more engaging than the put upon ingénue. There’s an intriguing intelligence to this performance, far more intuitively fleshed out with street smarts than a cloistered programmer like Angela Bennett would likely possess, given the same set of circumstances in reality. It works because Bullock is that sort of ‘hands on’ gal, caught behind the learning curve only because she’s come to the cloak and dagger later than her competition, but quickly catching up to speed once she has all the variables of background knowledge at her disposal. Jeremy Northam is a formidable villain; unscrupulous and foreboding, yet avoiding virtually all of the pitfalls of a sneering cliché. If only the technological aspects of the net itself had not moved on, The Net might have still held up as the casual computer surfer’s worst nightmare. As it stands, it’s a fairly standardized ‘chase/conspiracy’ thriller; still good for a gander, though hardly as cutting edge as it once seemed.
In their infinite wisdom, Sony Home Entertainment has made this region free Blu-ray exclusively available in Europe. One can chose to import it from Amazon; well worth it, since Sony has again given us their usual Grade ‘A’ hi-def treatment. The image is crisp and clean without any untoward DNR or artificial sharpening. Colors are fully/deeply saturated and fine details abound as they should. Age-related artifacts are a non-issue. In short – another reference quality disc from Sony that will surely please virtually everyone. My admiration for Sony Inc.’s movie output of the old Columbia/Tri-Star catalog, using various venues and third-party distribution apparatuses, has not clouded the fact Senior VP for Asset Management, Film Restoration and Digital Mastering, Grover Crisp’s approach to catalog maintenance remains the barometer by which all other studio’s attempting similarly-minded cultural preservation programs should readily take their cue. Warner, Fox…are you boys listening? Virtually every catalog title that has made its way down the pipeline from Sony under Crisp’s inspired tutelage has been a 1080p winner; the studio’s philosophy being, ‘if it’s good enough to get a hi-def release, then it had better get a proper one’. The Net also gets a DTS 5.1 audio remaster, fairly aggressive during the chase sequences, with good solid spatiality between dialogue and effects. We get two press junkets, made at the time the film was in production, but that’s about it. Bottom line: The Net holds up well enough for contemporary tastes and audience enjoyment. But Sony’s Blu-ray is up to snuff regardless and will surely impress for many good years yet to follow.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)