In the mid-90s, the internet was experiencing its absolute peak in popular culture. That particular iteration of the worldwide web, strewn with dancing babies and hamsters, java-based chat rooms and frame-based websites is a particularly nostalgic time period for me.
I was at the height of my alienation from society and would often retire to the office in my parents’ house to watch pixelated porn that took 72 hours to download, chat with goth girls from 7 states away, post my angst ridden poetry, and read .txt versions of “The Anarchist’s Cookbook” and “Animal Farm.” Yep, life was incredible. It was only natural that I would be drawn to popular entertainment that mirrored this magical, web-obsessed time period in my life.
It’s also interesting to note the circumstances in which I viewed the film that this article aims to describe. It was at a drive-in movie theater. Those things barely exist anymore outside of a few desperate attempts at recapturing old magic. I’ll always love drive-ins, though, because they’re such a beautiful piece of Americana. There’s nothing better than smuggling in coolers full of soda, huge bags of Cheetos, blankets and portable radios into a dusty old, unpaved parking lot to lie casually on the hood of your mom’s car and experience movie magic. That night’s double feature started with Larissa Oleynik’s classic female coming of age tale, The Babysitter’s Club, and closed with something a bit more edgy.
It’s the film that didn’t invent or improve, but almost completely destroyed the much-beloved “cyber action thriller” genre: The Net.
Before we go any further, I have to take this time to point out that this movie came out during the height of Sandra Bullock’s “it girl” status. Keep in mind, this film came out a year after she was catapulted to super stardom after starring alongside a young and dashing Keanu Reeves in Speed. Much like Cameron Diaz in The Mask, Sandra Bullock never looked hotter.
In an unexpectedly sinister opening, the U.S. secretary of defense receives an ominous call on his cell phone and vaguely admits to a huge data leak on his awesomely vintage cell phone. After requesting his driver to take the scenic route, he stops on a park picnic bench to make a phone call. After name dropping Sega and Nintendo in a conversation with his kids, he tells his family he loves them and kills himself via the business end of a revolver. Like a man of dignity, though, he at least takes the time to finish his apple before taking his own life. It’s a sin to let a fresh yellow delicious go to waste.
We’re then greeted with an artsy overhead shot of Sandra Bullock playing Wolfenstein, as seen through a well-placed skylight above her home office. Her desk is a mess, littered with papers and several CRT monitors side by side.
On the phone with the game’s developer, she finds a virus that plasters her screen with repeating text stating “YOU ARE DEAD” and defeats it with her clearly superior hacking skills. “One keystroke will wipe out your whole system,” she warns. This chick really knows her stuff. Her name is Angela Bennett. She works for a software company called Cathedral and enjoys turning down social plans in favor of ordering forever alone dinners from Pizza.net and pouring adult beverages from mini liquor bottles.
Being the ASMR aficionado that I am, it’s also come to my attention that the typing sounds in this movie are incredibly relaxing.
Warmed by the glow of her fireplace screensaver, she spends all of her time hanging out in a strange audio-based chat room talking to guys named “Cyberbob” and “Iceman.” She describes to them, in detail, her idea of a perfect man:
“Butch, beautiful, brilliant. Captain America meets Albert Schweitzer. Spends all day dashing into frame while making the world a safe place for democracy; at night playing Bach Cantatas while curing cancer.”
Cyberbob responds with a witty “Settle for a guy who puts the seat down?”
While somewhat crude, Cyberbob has a point. Angela needs to lower her fucking standards. Jesus himself couldn’t live up to that description. No wonder she’s so hopelessly alone.
Angela’s mother suffers from Alzheimer’s, but somehow plays Chopin effortlessly on the piano. This film has a weird obsession with classical musicians, but it never really ties into the plot beyond the superficial namedropping. Obviously a plot device that will come into play later, Angela’s only link to reality is a woman who suffers from a degenerative brain disease that causes memory loss.
Excited about her long-planned getaway vacation to the Yucatan, Angela gets a surprise package from her coworker and friend, Dale. Let me tell you a little something about Dale. This guy is a real catch. Not only does he collect computer viruses on floppy disk, but he’s also a pilot. Talk about your dream boats.
Held within the mystery FedEx package is an unassuming green disk with promotional material for a band called Mozart’s Ghost that claims, in a 90s surfer dude voiceover, to be “the best band on the internet.” That’s a pretty bold claim for someone who distributes their tour information on a fucking floppy disk. I will say, though, that a skeletal Mozart shredding on an electric guitar has got to be in the top 5 best mascots of all time.
Speaking of the tour information portion of the disk, it also contains a mysterious pi symbol that, when ctrl+shift is pressed, lets you legitimately HACK THE FUCKING PLANET. We’re talking hospital records, police records, air traffic control, the works. How all of that can be held on a disk only a handful of megabytes large is beyond me. These guys are programming geniuses.
After being goaded into it by Dale, Angela is forced to cancel her vacation plans in order to explore this crazy predicament further. On account of the strange pi symbol and its yet-misunderstood implications, Dale convinces Angela to drop everything and wait for his arrival. Ruining someone else’s vacation really fucks up your karma, though, and Dale’s personal aircraft navigation system is compromised and causes him to crash and die in a fiery wreck. The explosion is somehow 800x worse than the Hindenburg disaster. I guess Dale was transporting several tons of C4 or something.
Angela hears about the awful news from her boss, who is somehow calm and flippant about the tragedy. He totally glosses over the fact that her good friend and colleague just died in a plane crash coming to see her that morning. “Oh, by the way, your best friend got burned to death like an overcooked corn chip. When can you come back to work? Enjoy your vacation!”
Another thing of note is that, besides being a successful hacker who lives in a huge house in California, Angela still takes the bus. Was this a nod to her character in Speed? Is this going to be a running gag?
Finally, after all the weirdness and death around her, Angela makes it to her scenic beach getaway vacation. To the audience’s delight, she looks positively stunning in a bikini. While working on her chunky ass laptop on the beach, she crosses paths with a handsome foreign guy who couldn’t possibly be any more obviously the film’s main villain. His name is Jack Devlin. They find immediate rapport over their mutual appreciation of a drink called a “Gibson.” Devlin describes it as “…a Martini with an onion instead of an olive.” A simple change in garnish requires an entirely new drink name? Fuck, this movie takes a lot of liberties.
She also makes a cringe worthy attempt at flirting by complimenting his laptop:
“That’s a nice piece of hardware. You in the business?”
I love how fake 90s tech the dialogue in this movie is. The internet was so new and exciting and everyone was trying to sound cool by throwing around all these bullshit buzz words. It’s like when your mom tries to talk about what she’s looking for in a new smart phone. She means well, but the technology is well above her understanding.
After Devlin successfully seduces Angela, he pays a shady looking Hispanic guy to mug her and steal her purse while they take a lovely night stroll on the beach. Devlin pretends to chase the guy down into a grove of bushes and finds the Mozart’s Ghost disk in Angela’s stolen purse. After securing what he needs, he executes the mugger gangland style and calls him a “midget Houdini.” That’s one way to get out of paying for services rendered.
Later, alone on a boat cuddling with Devlin, Angela finds his gun and realizes his murderous intent. Attempting to flee on a dinghy, she goofs up as only a poorly written female lead can and runs straight into a bunch of huge rocks, destroying the disk and leaving her unconscious for 3 days. When she wakes up, her identity has been completely erased and every shred of her former life no longer exists.
Devlin assigns her social security number to a person named Ruth Marx and attaches a lengthy police record to it. When she calls her desk at Cathedral, an impostor answers and offers her the chance to reclaim her former life in exchange for the disk. Angela isn’t falling for it.
Her only hope for survival is smarter-than-you comedian and failed sports commentator, her former lover Dennis Miller. Like any good Captain Save-A-Hoe, he sets her up with a hotel, new clothes, and arranges safe keeping for her memory-impaired mother.
Using her elite hacking skills, Angela uncovers the mystery of the disk with help from her buddy Cyberbob. It turns out the disk was created by the Praetorians, a lethal group of cyberterrorists hell-bent on the destruction of the interwebz. Devlin is their hired contract killer.
Planning to meet at the Santa Monica Pier (not conspicuous at all), Cyberbob and Angela’s date is ruined by a surprise visit from Devlin. After her desperate escape, Angela learns that Dennis Miller has been killed. The Praetorians messed with his pharmaceutical and hospital records resulting in his accidental death at the hands of hospital staff. That’s a malpractice suit waiting to happen. These nerdy white people have more power than god, it seems.
On the run from the law, Angela uncovers the Praetorians’ scheme: Using a shell company called Gregg Microsystems, the Praetorians attack an organization’s computer systems and then sell that organization their “Gatekeeper” product through Gregg Microsystems in order to open a permanent backdoor that provides unlimited access. Rushing to the Cathedral offices, Angela uses the computers there to email evidence of the conspiracy to the FBI. She also tricks Devlin, via instant messaging, into releasing a virus within the Praetorians’ mainframe and undoes the destruction of her personal identity.
We’re treated to a horribly cliché catwalk climax between Devlin, Angela and the real Ruth Marx, Angela’s impostor. After accidentally shooting and killing Marx, Devlin is ambushed with a fire extinguisher to the skull by Angela and he falls to his death. The most hilarious part is that the fall is like 15 feet and he lands on his back. This type of fall wouldn’t kill a 130 year old man with osteoporosis and a heart condition.
After a lovingly cheesy reunion scene between Angela and her mother in another gloriously artistic skylight shot, all is well in the world and the tale of the Mozart’s Ghost Conspiracy Adventure (working title) comes to a close.
Despite its generic plot, terrible writing, fake technology and inconsistencies, I still really enjoy The Net. Maybe it’s just the schlock factor or those rose-colored nostalgia goggles, but I have such an innate affinity for this kind of whacky cyber adventure. All of the tense scenes as told through computer screens, the bombastic score punctuated by furious typing and the hasty insertion and removal of floppy disks during climactic plot points are so hilariously entertaining. The anachronisms are most likely lost on any generation other than my own, but this blog is meant to showcase that kind of thing. The Net would find itself very comfortable in your bad thriller movie night lineup.