The 90s on Netflix: The Net (1995)
Mark Harrison | On 06, May 2023
Director: Irwin Winkler
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Jeremy Northam, Dennis Miller, Wendy Gazelle, Ken Howard
Do you remember the 1990s? Mark does. In this column, he flashes back to the golden decade of our childhood. From family-friendly films to blockbusters we shouldn’t have been watching, get ready for a monthly dose of nostalgia, as we put down our VHS tapes and find out whether the 90s on Netflix are still Live & Kicking.
As politicians and media outlets rail against people continuing to work remotely now that the pandemic has been shuffled down in the news agenda, here’s the ultimate anti-working from home movie. In 1995’s The Net, cyber-terrorists erase the identity of Sandra Bullock’s systems analyst Angela Bennett while she’s on holiday in Mexico.
With no recourse to friends or neighbours or colleagues to verify her identity, Angela re-enters the United States via underhanded means, going on the run from both the cops and the terrorists. To clear her name (and get it back), she must expose the hackers’ potentially devastating backdoor access into America’s most crucial computer infrastructure.
The internet doesn’t come up too frequently in 1990s movies, but across the latter half of the decade, representation varies from cult classic Hackers to product-placement rom-com You’ve Got Mail. Coinciding with the moment that both Sandra Bullock and the World Wide Web really took hold of the public imagination in 1995, The Net has got something of a reputation for either fudging or exaggerating the dangers of cyberspace.
Directed by Rocky series producer Jeremy Northam, this was designed as late-summer multiplex fare and its solid thriller shape surpasses its various eccentricities. The usual early-internet movie tropes are present and correct, such as Bullock dictating her emails aloud to the audience as she types them and a more generalised awe at what man hath wrought by making pizza deliverable online from “pizza.net”.
But right off the bat, the film’s inciting incident is a case of online romance fraud, which is awfully prescient. This being the mid-1990s, Jeremy Northam’s super-punchable cyber-criminal essays Angela’s professed “Captain America meets Albert Schweitzer” ideal in person, but this kind of thing has only gotten easier for the creeps. And for the film’s purposes, it upgrades a well-worn spy thriller conceit with its rising female star.
From a modern perspective, Sandra Bullock needs no introduction, but she carries this. Coming after her breakout role in Speed and hot on the heels of her romantic leading role in While You Were Sleeping, the central identity crisis hinges on both her plight and pluck as a Hitchcockian “wrong woman”, and she gives the film enough rope that it can fudge or exaggerate as many other details as it fancies. And it invariably does.
Around Bullock, it’s either terribly or brilliantly cast – it’s difficult to tell from one scene to the next. Northam’s Jack Devlin goes from dreamboat to catfish in relatively short order, but the vibe coming off the other male characters is very “normal men, just innocent men”.
Take Dr Alan Champion (Dennis Miller), Angela’s much older ex-lover and former psychiatrist, who unfortunately seems to be the only person who can verify her identity. Implausibly, Miller’s there to turn on the charm and do some quips, but it all sits very, very awkwardly. Written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris, the script gives us the kind of female-led suspense thriller that was rare at the time, but also sometimes seems naïve in that way.
Despite lukewarm reviews, the film was a hit, making $110 million worldwide off a $22m budget. A TV spin-off starring Brooke Langton as Angela ran for one season on the USA Network in 1998, and Winkler’s son, Charles, directed the direct-to-video 2006 sequel, aptly named The Net 2.0, featuring Nikki DeLoach as a new character. The original has its fans, not least the late great Carl Reiner, who used to tweet about rewatching the movie on a regular basis.
Elsewhere, Sandra Bullock had a string of roles through the rest of the 1990s before truly arriving on the A-list with 2000’s Miss Congeniality. The Net may be a bit off and on again in its portrayal of the internet but, as a star vehicle built around her, it gets much further than it would with a less charismatic star. Like the Web itself, Bullock would become indispensable over the next few decades, and it’s her solid work in otherwise unremarkable fare like this that laid those foundations.
Next Time on The 90s on Netflix
“We’re off to see the lizard.”