The true test of a movie star is how adroitly he or she can put across a far-fetched thriller. Cary Grant and James Stewart in their Hitchcock movies are the classic examples; recent examples might be Harrison Ford in The Fugitive and Jodie Foster in, yes, The Silence of the Lambs (a gripping story brilliantly told, but c’mon, think about it for a few minutes). And in The Net, Sandra Bullock, the most confident and exuberant new American star in ages, guides you past the many bumps in the plot. Playing a lonely computer whiz who yearns for contact yet fears it, Bullock takes you directly inside the movie’s paranoid heart. That’s what a star can do for a thriller: bring out its subtext, which touches on our common anxieties rather than just putting us through the dumb stress of watching bad guys stalk good guys.
Bullock has been called the new Julia Roberts, but the comparison insults both actresses, who each have their own style. Julia Roberts often exudes waiflike fragility; she can make us feel protective. Sandra Bullock, a relatively tiny woman compared with the leggy Roberts, is vulnerable but not easily breakable. She’s also an innately funny actress. In Demolition Man, Bullock played a 21st-century cop smitten with the tough pulp of the 20th century. Attempting to show off her command of old-time cop slang, she proudly suggested, “Let’s go in there and blow them.” (“Blow them away,” Sylvester Stallone corrected.) Bullock delivered the line so innocently, as if she sincerely thought that was the right expression, that a potentially lame joke was transformed into wit. And her career so far has been full of moments like that.
The Net, directed by Irwin Winkler (Night and the City), is a pressure-cooker trust-nobody thriller in the tradition of Marathon Man and The Parallax View. Bullock is Angela Bennett, a program analyst who sniffs out computer viruses and banishes them. Or something like that. The movie doesn’t bury you in cyberbabble; it’s friendly to computer newbies — maybe too much so. The Net has provoked grumbling from cybernerds: The plot turns on a medical file, which in fact is not accessible on the web. And when Angela stumbles onto this incriminating file and some bad guys start chasing her and systematically deleting every computerized trace of her identity, you’d do well to remember that computers aren’t that omniscient yet.
The key word is yet. The Net works terrifically well as a cautionary thriller about where technology is headed. All of us are already, to a large degree, reduced to numbers. And nobody really knows what exactly the Internet is, or will be, capable of. It’s a highly controversial medium in its infancy (nobody has agreed on proper web regulations, for instance), and that’s what makes it fertile soil for a thriller. The premise — an average person’s life is stripped away by a relentless group of crypto-fascists — is right out of Kafka, who would have known what to make of the web. Irwin Winkler isn’t Kafka, but in The Net‘s best moments he comes within shouting distance of Hitchcock. Winkler hasn’t made a movie for techies; he uses the web’s informational access as his MacGuffin — the thing that sets the plot in motion, the thing the heroine has and the villains will kill to get.
The Net is a good, sturdy nail-biter with neo-Luddite undercurrents of dread. Barcodes, disks, even televisions and phones become talismans of evil used against Angela. And as she gets deeper into trouble, Winkler frames her inside doorways, looking out of windows, shoehorned between people, peering through cracks; the compositions (by Jack N. Green, Clint Eastwood’s usual cinematographer) box Angela in, so that she always seems trapped inside a computer screen. It’s telling that the film’s tense climax finds her seated in a cubicle. And in the last shot, Angela tends flowers with her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother (Diane Baker). The camera pulls back, and Angela — now spending time with a human with imperfect memory, rather than with a computer with megabytes of memory — is restored to herself in a nice, comfortable long shot, surrounded by nature. The Net is more than a trendy cyberthriller; it yearns for simpler days, when we sat down and wrote letters instead of sending e-mail, chatted on the phone instead of in chat rooms, actually went out and made real live friends.