25 Years of “The Net,” and the new age of techno-thrillers

The Net Sandra Bullock in The Net (Sony Pictures Releasing)

A look back at a time when “the internet” was portrayed as a mysterious boogeyman that could destroy your life.

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Daniel Lavery, in a list of fake plots for Black Mirror, once asked “What if phones, but too much?” It perfectly encapsulated Black Mirror’s brand of dystopian sci-fi that warned against the dangers of relying too much on technology, made for people who had willingly given themselves over body and soul to the great god iOs. Most of us were already too far gone by that point, content to maintain our finances, personal lives, and very identities in an object small enough to fit in our pockets. It seems almost unfathomable that just 25 years ago, in Irwin Winkler’s The Net, along with a spate of other films in the few years following, the internet was portrayed as a mysterious, menacing place that, if you knew better, you’d avoid.

By 1995, “the internet,” while widely available, was a mere shell of what it would eventually become. E-commerce was not yet a thing, personal banking was still done mostly in brick and mortar branches, and “social media” was reserved to message boards. The miracle of dial-up access made it so it would take only a mere two hours to download a two minute long movie trailer. It was still used mostly for email and bored college students, but The Net predicted, with grave foreboding, a near-future where we would all become dependent on it, to our detriment.

The Net depicted things that both weren’t possible then, and still aren’t possible now, like being able to completely eliminate someone’s identity via computer. Oh, you can certainly steal someone’s identity and claim it as your own, but there’s no such thing as wiping away all traces of their existence with just a few keystrokes, let alone force them into another identity. Some things it does get right, however, such as telecommuting, and being able to order a pizza without having to call anyone. However, they’re not treated as conveniences so much as tragic signs of heroine Angela Bennett’s (Sandra Bullock) loneliness and isolation. She has no one in her life but her Alzheimer’s stricken mother, and the weirdos Angela chats with online, who say stuff like “No one leaves the house anymore. No one has sex. The internet is the ultimate condom.”

The Net depicted things that both weren’t possible then, and still aren’t possible now, like being able to completely eliminate someone’s identity via computer.

After receiving a mysterious floppy disk that allows access to the security systems of virtually every government agency and bank in the world, Angela becomes the victim of a hilariously elaborate cyberterrorism plot. The plot, largely orchestrated by evil British hunk Jeremy Northam, is a QAnon level-conspiracy involving hacked mainframes, falsified medical records and multiple impostors, for an issue that could have been solved with simple breaking and entering. Even knowing what we know today about deep fakes, Wikileaks, and foreign interference in elections, it all comes off as rather far-fetched.

But, of course, The Net wasn’t made for people who had some knowledge of what could or couldn’t actually be done in “cyberspace.” It was made specifically for those who didn’t understand it (and didn’t want to), and believed it was possible that simply typing a few letters on a keyboard could not only make someone’s driver’s license appear on a computer screen, but allow it (not to mention the person’s entire driving record) to be deleted.

The primary message to be taken from The Net is that Angela wouldn’t have gotten into this kind of trouble if she hadn’t relied so heavily on computers for both her job, and her personal life. She’s so given her life over to the World Wide Web that not even her neighbors recognize her. The “ironic” twist is that, despite Angela’s desperate attempts to get her identity back, almost no one she encounters is either willing, or able to help her, because they rely solely on what computers tell them. Its depiction of a bleak “we welcome our robot overlords” future is about as subtle as a brick dropped on the audience’s foot.

Despite that, as overblown as it is at times, The Net does bear a slight resemblance to the internet as it is today (although you may be disappointed to know that pizza.net is not an active domain). That’s more than can be said for the movies that followed it in the same genre, like Virtuosity, which suggested that virtual reality would soon allow for the creation of a human being made entirely from the very worst parts of the very worst serial killers. Then there was 1998’s Strangeland, written by Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider, which warned impressionable teen girls against the dangers of talking to strangers on the internet, lest one of them may be a heavily tattooed and pierced freak with a murder dungeon in his house. And let’s not forget 2002’s FeardotCom, which feels like it was based on an email forward about a person viewing an image on the internet so horrifying that they immediately went insane and died.

On the flip side, there were a handful of movies that made the idea of being Extremely Online seem hip, maybe even a little sexy, like Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, and Hackers. All of them predicted the same grim future where the internet would be a minefield of creeps, weirdos and evil geniuses. Now, to be fair, one does encounter a considerable amount of creeps and weirdos online, but they’re far more likely to just send you gifs of a pig shitting on its own balls than “hack” into your bank account and cancel all your credit cards. That’s not to say they’re harmless, exactly, but rather that they’re not capable of worldwide domination from behind a keyboard.

You’re also just as likely to encounter 13 year-olds who are making artsy short films on Tik Tok, and grandmothers exchanging recipes for funeral potatoes. Despite The Net ringing alarm bells over what might happen if we rely too much on computers, we’ve done just that, willingly and happily. The amount of information we give up to strangers without a second thought would have been shocking just 25 years ago. If anything, now it’s the people who keep a low profile online, let alone those who live their lives “off the grid” who are the outliers, the ones who are maybe a little weird and untrustworthy. Why would you want to make your own life so difficult, when computers exist to do everything for you?

The Net Trailer:

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